Image of a densely-packed forest

Source: Linda Sanchez-Greissel’s Flickr photostream

OK, check this out. I’m pretty. I’m bad. I’m a pretty bad man. In fact, I’m so bad that despite what my online persona might have you believe, I go around the street knocking people upside the head. I can KO a dude with a single roundhouse kick to the head and not give a crap, that’s how bad I am.

I’m so bad, in fact, that one day I’ll stroll up to your house (yes, YOU) with a couple of my equally bad friends, rough you up, and kick you to the curb. You’ll stare at us with tears in your eyes as my buddies and I laugh, standing in your doorway. You’ll shout “You’re horrible! How can you beat me up and kick me out of my own house? (Let’s forget about cops for a minute). I’ll be like, “It’s MY house, punk!” high-five my friends, and call up some of my other friends like, “Yo, house party at the new crib I just stole!”

Soon, a whole bunch of people are coming up to get this party started. As you sit on the curb nursing your injuries, you glare at them. “You’re all just as bad as the three guys inside,” you shout at them. “That house doesn’t belong to you, but you’re going to enjoy it like it’s yours.” One person says, “Whoa, whoa, WHOA! Cut the GUILT trip! *I* didn’t roundhouse kick you in the head! *I’m* not the one who kicked you out of your house! I’m an individual and you can’t lump me in with everybody else. I personally didn’t do anything wrong, and you can’t make me feel guilty for something I didn’t do.” That friend then throws up a peace sign at you, and strolls up to MY new house, and high-fives me at the door. “This house looks NICE,” he nods. “This party is gonna be dope!”

You’re still shouting at everyone and how they’re responsible for your loss when one of your friends come by. You explain to them what happened, and reiterate how everyone in that party is just as wrong as me when your friend cuts you off. “Hey, that’s really cold,” your friend says. “You can’t take away people’s identity like that. Instead of lumping everyone together, you should try to empathize and not point fingers.”

You were expecting your friend to be supportive of your plight, but instead they’ve made you super angry. You’re hurt, you just lost your house, but your friend is asking you to *empathize* with me and my friends. You’re about to scream, but instead you take a deep breath and say, “I’m not saying the people in my house are not individuals. I’m also not saying that every single one of them beat me up and stole my house. Yes, only three guys beat me up, but all of them are now enjoying the benefits of what those three guys did, so I’m holding them all accountable.”

Your friend shakes their head. “Those house guests are individuals who have feelings and families, but you’re erasing their identities. That’s not cool.” You tell your friend to shut up (in perhaps not as many words). They shrug, and go join the rest of the guests in my house party.

The moral of the story is: individuals matter. Collective identities matter. Sometimes individual experiences are important and should be recognized (you’re hurting and you want your house back). Other times, collective identities need to be discussed because collective action is necessary (all those guests need to leave and give you your house back). We can talk about individual trees AND a collective forest, without ignoring one or the other. Let’s not focus on the individual as a way to deflect collective responsibility and action; let’s not focus on collective identity to erase particular experiences. Instead, let’s be context-aware and discuss these issues accordingly.

The end