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President Barack Obama speaks during the General Session of the 2015 DNC Winter Meeting in Washington, DC, Feb. 20, 2015.
Alex Wong—EPA
John McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University.

The Obama slam of the moment is that he should be calling our battle against ISIS one against Islamic terrorists, instead of pretending that the battle is against something as general as “terrorists” alone. The people angry at Obama about this are forgetting how educated they are.

Here’s what I mean. The Obama administration wants to avoid people thinking our battle is against Islam in general. His critics, however, assume that it would be obvious to anybody that you can battle one strain of Islam without having it in for Muslims in general. That perspective is typical of an educated Westerner, who today is trained — to an almost religious degree — to strive to view people as individuals rather than to stereotype. Stereotyping is treated among us as, essentially, a transgression of human decency.

We’ve learned our lesson — to the point that we forget that it ever was a lesson. Surely anyone knows that battling a particular group of Islamic terrorists is to battle those individuals, not Islam as a whole, right? Wrong, actually.

Attributing group traits to individuals is a deeply seated psychological habit. When a person is unfamiliar, we are less likely to process them as an individual than we are to seek to classify them into some higher category. Implicit Association tests, most famous these days as revealing that black people are more readily associated with negative words than positive ones, are ample testament to this. Stereotyping is almost certainly programmed in our genes. Once it may have been a useful defense mechanism, but today it is disadvantageous as often as it is useful.

But that means: Just as for some it can be a short step from “He’s black” to “He’s a criminal,” for just as many, it’s a short step from “They are battling that group of Muslims” to “They don’t like Muslims, period.” This isn’t hard to explain: Given our natural tendency to generalize about persons, it’s easier to see someone as, for example, “Muslim,” than to see that person as simply one of billions of infinitely variant individuals.

So, it will most certainly not be obvious to many human beings that a war against “Islamic terrorists” is not a war against Islam. Recent historical events certainly encourage the misconception, but even without them, that overgeneralizing leap would have been common — because it’s natural.

The Obama Administration has neither the time nor the wherewithal to train the world, Karate Kid-style, in the mental feat of resisting the impulse to generalize about people and see them as individuals first. The hopelessness of such a feat should be more obvious to Obama’s critics than it is.

We see how we fail to make subtle distinctions every day in our own domestic politics.

On the left, it is considered acceptable to use a single awkward comment about people of a color or gender or class as evidence that one is, overall, racist, sexist, or classist and dismissible from civilized society. The case of Justine Sacco, treated as a near-psychopath for one racially insensitive tweet to friends and family, is illustrative.

On the right, imagine Obama, because he is given to mentioning mistakes America has made in the past, being tarred as, overall, someone who doesn’t love America.

That’s a mental jump, by Rudolph Giuliani, from Barack Obama the individual to a traitorous radical figurine. Both Giuliani and the people who ruined Sacco’s life on Twitter are normal humans, operating from the same deep-seated impulse to generalize, especially about things feared or hated.

For the left, isms. For the right, collegetown radicalism, ACORN, and such. For many watching America, a war on Islam.

No one should have trouble understanding why a war on Islamic terrorists isn’t a war on Islam? Nonsense. No one should have any trouble understanding why the Obama administration must mince its words when fighting Islamic terrorists. Not all people are initiated into the mental acrobatics of resisting stereotyping, and even we aren’t as good at it as we like to think.

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