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Bulk Thinking

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Bulk buying, as any businessman worth his salt can tell you, is cheap; so is bulk-thinking. "All Bangladeshis are lazy thieves" saves effort of the mental kind; one doesn't have to keep exceptions in mind, or to search for them. "All Englishmen are honest" makes no room for Robert Clive. Thinking in bulk makes for effortlessness at the expense of accuracy.

Of course, it sometimes makes for efficiency as well. Dealing with humanity in the mass rather than in the detail has enabled the British to rule the earth for 200 years; today, the same principle serves the Americans well. The trick is to combine bulk thinking with judicious exceptionalism. It wouldn't do to regard "All democracies are safe" as an a priori truth. '"Democracies with the exception of those in which mullahs have a tendency to win" are safe' is a safer rule of thumb. All successful imperialists have mastered the art of thinking in bulk and at the same time making exceptions. "When in Rome, do as the Romans" could only have arisen in conscious recognition of the contrary dictum "When not in Rome, do not as the Romans" – even if Rome happens to rule the province you find yourself in.

The astute reader will have noticed a bit of bulk thinking on my part above. I observed that all successful imperialists think in bulk and in exceptions. Now, this is a bulk statement, and so it was effortless. It was facile. Let me redeem myself. Successful imperialists do think in bulk and make exceptions at the same time, but not always. And to that extent they are less successful. And no imperialist is completely successful. And lest the reader come to believe that I am hiding behind synacategorematic expressions '(but', 'and', 'if', 'not'...), let me offer concrete examples.

The British genius failed in Ireland. And it failed for 800 years. It is still failing. That is a long time to fail. It amounts almost to success – it is indeed difficult to characterize as failure a feat that has been dragged out over several centuries. Nevertheless, Ireland has been a failure to the extent that the British have had to surrender it, whereas in other climes they "left". Not a bad record compared to the French or the Dutch.

Of course, bulk thinking also makes for safety. There are certain parts of New York, I am told, where one should not venture, that is, where one should not make any judicious exceptions. These may prove most injudicious. The New York Police Department has used this principle to good effect. Violence in New York, I am told, has come down largely due to the indiscriminate use of the principle of thinking – and sometimes shooting – in bulk.

And some of our finest sentiments are rooted in bulk thinking. Patriotism, for instance. "All and only those who speak my language – or come from my corner of the world - are worthy of respect." What sentiment could be finer! It has sent young boys to meet death with casual disregard, to write poems of heroism ("If I should die, think only this of me....") and of posthumous regret ("What hope for these that die as cattle...?").

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Party loyalty, too, is rooted in this principle. "All Tories are toffs" makes no exception for the grocer's daughter. "All Labourites are beer-bellied" similarly ignores the waistline of the party's present and former torch-bearers.

But the question cannot be postponed: isn't bulk thinking a glaring oxymoron? After all, doesn't thinking imply taking pains, teasing out exceptions, painting intermediate hues, minimising monochrome...? Just like great art, or great music. Isn't a sonata the very antithesis of a martial drumbeat? And so isn't thinking – the 'sweat of the nobles' – the very opposite of bulk thinking?

Yes and No. Arnold Toynbee was unable to conceive of a progression of European history other than that followed by Europe. And Marx had the whole world carved out between workers and capitalists. Liberals today – like Fukuyama - believe there is only one form of legitimate government. These men were not idiots – except to their adversaries.

Bulkiness in thinking can only be forgiven if the bulk considered is humanity. Anything that derogates from this great bulk militates against thought as well as decency. Here is where we turn to the novelist and the poet. They are the enemies of the bulk. They treat each human being as though, well, he were a human being, idiosyncratic, inane, imperfect.... But that must be because novels and poems are born, not of thought, but of feeling. There is a tendency to universalise in all thought; there is a humanising tendency in feeling.

The thinker and the poet, then, constitute two halves of the whole individual. Without their hostile cooperation, we would not have the tension of sympathy. For just as it would be injudicious to venture into certain parts of New York after dark, so it would be inhuman to ignore the residents therein. In direct proportion to the terror they inspire, we are taught by writers, we should empathise with the terrible injustice that accounts for that terror. In this stress of opposing forces lies our humanity.

It is the humanity of the individual. This creature is more of an endangered species than those protected and preserved by the EPA. The unit of mankind must be hunted out, like game, for he hides in odd places. He is invisible because he is not of the herd. He can't be seen scampering with his fellows to safety over dangerous terrain. He is a loner. Every thought comes to him like a revelation. He does not borrow ideas or words. He deals with you man to man. And he hides, not out of fear, or at least the fear of being eaten alive, but for fear of being classified. The classified is the ossified. To be classified is to be safe, as safe as dinosaur bones. Again, I am not speaking of physical safety. There is a kind of animal warmth shared by those who think alike, dress alike, speak alike. In the winter of life's struggle, this warmth saves from death by exposure. Huddle in bulk – think in bulk, speak in bulk, move in bulk – and one need never be cold, only callous.

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Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, "ŽBangladesh. He has contributed to AXIS OF LOGIC, ENTER TEXT, POSTCOLONIAL "ŽTEXT, LEFT CURVE, MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications. "ŽHe is also a (more...)

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as long as the generalization is willd and include... by John Hanks on Thursday, Apr 24, 2008 at 7:32:07 PM
at the same time rich style, the punchy conclusion... by Robert Hoogenboom on Thursday, Apr 24, 2008 at 8:10:08 PM