As many are, I'm reflecting on the recent political conventions. Probably because each of the main parties is so divided (compared to broad historical norms -- with exceptions), it has highlighted for me the dangers of speaking about collectives (e.g., "Americans", "Democrats", "Republicans", "sports fans", "men", "women", etc.) using terms that are applicable most accurately to individuals.
For example, on almost any issue, it's almost certainly wildly inaccurate to say that "Americans" feel X, think X, are X, etc. As a proxy for this, consider that most U.S. Presidential elections are decided by less than 3% - 4% of the vote. In fact, 12 Presidential elections have been decided by voting margins of less than 1%. So, it's probably safe to say that, on many, if not most, issues, "Americans" or "the People" don't think, feel any one thing, or otherwise have a consensus position.
As with any complicated issue, however, there are nuances. In certain, narrower circumstances, it's probably not inaccurate to ascribe an attribute to a collective and have it apply to all or most of the members of that collective. For example, in the fourth quarter of the seventh game of the 2016 NBA Finals, it would have probably been accurate to say that "Cleveland fans were aching for the Cavaliers to win", and have that literally be true of all members of the class of Cavalier fans.
But, once one goes outside that narrow domain, things break down. For example, if one assumes that Cleveland Cavalier fans are similar to Ohio voters in general, Cav's fans are divided pretty evenly on most other issues. Using the presidential vote in Ohio as a proxy, the margin of victory in the Ohio Presidential vote since 1996 has varied between 2% - 5%. That's a pretty even split.
After thinking about it, there seem to me to be three main dimensions along which one should analyze this:
- Nature and Strength of the Group's Affinity Bond
- Breadth of Issues
Using this analytical framework on the above example, it's probably accurate to talk about (1) Cav's fans (nature of the affinity bond) as a monolith when it comes to issues of (2) Cav's vs. Warriors (breadth of issues) and it's (3) the fourth quarter of the final game of the NBA Championships (context). As those constraints are relaxed, however, it becomes less accurate to ascribe any attribute to Cav's fans (or any other collective) as if they were monoliths. If they're like other Ohioans, Cav's fans are pretty evenly split on most political issues, so statements like "Cav's fans are X", "feel X", or "think X" should be used very sparingly.
This, obviously, is more starkly true the larger and more varied the collective is to which one is ascribing an attribute, such as "Americans" or "the People". No surprise, this has long been understood by politicians of all stripes, and widely misused in furtherance of getting elected. Disturbingly, because it plays into the atavistic, "tribal" aspects of human nature, it forms the core of "identity" politics right across the entire political spectrum.
The lesson, I suppose, is to be on your guard whenever you hear someone ascribe an "individual" or categorical attribute to a collective. Use the three above-referenced dimensions to analyze the accuracy of the claim. Usually, it'll be wildly inaccurate.