The struggle against stereotypes and prejudices – part 3

(For earlier installments in this series, see part 1 and part 2)

The problem with fighting prejudice is that we think that conceding that we have any prejudices at all is in itself shameful. So to avoid being thought badly of, we deny that we have them or avoid conversations that run any risk that we might unwittingly reveal our prejudices. This is why it is so hard to have an honest discussion about race in America (or most places for that matter). Any discussion that does take place either ends up with people holding hands and singing “We shall overcome” or “Kumbaya” or uttering platitudes about everyone being the same or being guarded and defensive.

It always amazes me, for example, when I hear people say that they do not see the ‘color’ of people. For example, I have done a lot of work with the public education system in urban areas in and around Cleveland. There are immediate color issues that arise in schools because the majority of teachers are white and many of the students are black. This imbalance carries with the ever-present danger that any teacher-student conflict will be interpreted in race terms. Teachers often try to preempt this by saying that they do not ‘see’ their students in terms of their color. But I often wonder if that is really possible or if they are just trying to fool themselves.

I think that they say this to imply that they are not prejudiced. But I find it hard to accept that people literally do not see color, when people’s skin color is such an important factor in our lives. I remember someone once trying to help me identify someone else who had attended a meeting by describing that person. I was given various pieces of information but at one point I asked “Was she black?” And the person said “yes.” If I had been given that piece of obviously useful information right at the beginning, I could have identified the person much earlier. I think the reason that my friend had not volunteered this important identifying marker right up front was due to the fear that if he had said so, that meant that the person’s color had been noted by him and thus he was prejudiced.

But this is raising the bar for evidence of lack of prejudice to an absurd and unreachable level. Of course we register the color of the people we meet. How can we not when skin color is such a major part of our political and social dialogue? When I go into a roomful of people, I immediately register people on the basis of their skin color and gender and age and size (height/weight) because these are the major identifying categories that I use. Interestingly, I find that I do not register hair or eye color, although many other people do. When someone asks me if so-and-so has blue eyes or brown hair, I find that I cannot recall this kind of detail at all. This may be because in Sri Lanka, everyone has black hair and dark brown eyes so we never use hair and eye color as identifying markers, and I have not acquired that habit. But although we are all brown skinned, there was a wide range of shades and skin color is an important feature.

If we really want to have honest discussions about race we need to start by acknowledging that it is natural to believe in stereotypes and to have prejudices. By natural, I do not mean that it is admirable (it is not) or that we can do nothing about it (we can). We can and should strive to eliminate such thinking. But at this stage of our social development, both individually and as a society, we have stereotypes and prejudices and it is not use denying them. It may be more helpful to simply concede that we have them and think about how we can prevent ourselves from taking actions based on them.

Fortunately in my own case, I have been lucky to have worked with people with whom I can discuss issues of race honestly, and am able to ask them questions about customs, practices, and behavior that increase my awareness of the culture of other communities. This has enabled me to increase my personal store of information about others that I hope will slowly eat away at the false knowledge structures that were built on inadequate data. But it is foolish to think that this has enabled me to eliminate all my prejudices. At best, it has helped me to remove some of my major misapprehensions.

To be continued tomorrow…

The struggle against stereotypes and prejudices – part 2

As I get older and more introspective, it is becoming increasingly clear that I have deep within me all kinds of stereotypes about other groups of people based on their religion and ethnicity and nationality and class. So I am sure that, if I go deep into my psyche, I will discover beliefs about Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Norwegians, Chinese, Ugandans, working class people, rich people, in fact every group that I myself am not a member of, that would be seen as laughable, absurd or even offensive by members of those groups. The reason is that basically I know very little about any of these groups.

Because of this I have learned that I cannot trust my instincts, because they have been acquired using inadequate and erroneous data. In order to combat my stereotypical thinking, I have to fall back on my intellectual understanding of politics and race and class. In my intellectual/analytical mode, I know that stereotypes are unreliable guides to predicting the behavior of people, that race has no validity as a biological construct, and hence no inferences can be drawn about what various ethnic groups are ‘really’ like, as if there is some innate and unchangeable quality that characterizes groups of people. We are the products of our upbringing and while there is variation due to genetics and heredity, these qualities do not correlate with ‘race, ‘ because the concept of race is not a biological one.

But to say that intellectually I understand that my stereotypes have little basis in science and reality is not to imply that the prejudices the stereotypes generate have no power over me. It is that when it comes to issues of race (and class), my intellectual knowledge is in a constant struggle with my ‘gut’ feelings, and I have to constantly guard against making snap judgments. While I trust my intuition in many areas of life (say in applying laws of physics to situations), I know that it is unreliable in making judgments involving race, and so I have got into the habit of being on my guard whenever issues of race comes up. This is why I was so skeptical of the initial reports of people of color behaving badly after Katrina. It was not because I am not prejudiced. It was because I am consciously aware of the existence of my prejudices and so realize the need to be alert whenever I encounter news reports that have racial implications. I needed to see harder evidence about the events of Katrina to convince myself that I was not believing things because I was succumbing to my prejudices. And that hard evidence never materialized.

I think that we all have such stereotypes. We cannot help it. It seems to be an instinctive trait that we make generalizations and create theories (often unconsciously) about everything in life that we encounter. It is well known in the educational literature that even very young children develop quite intricate models of how the world works, prior to, and even in the face of, formal instruction. The less actual data that we have about any thing, the more likely that our theories will be faulty, and thus are stereotypes and prejudices born, often at a very young age.

Stereotypes are not necessarily completely false. They usually have kernels of truth. In my own case, there exist stereotypes about each of the categories of the community of people that I grew up in, which consisted of middle class Protestant Christian Tamil Sri Lankans. They are not completely untrue. The difference is that since I know that community very well, I am well aware that the common features that give rise to stereotypes are dwarfed by the huge diversity and variation that exists within that group. And because of that variation, I know that it is foolish to judge any individual in that group based on the stereotype, because any given person in that group might come nowhere close to it. So while elements of the stereotype may be true, it would be a mistake to judge any individual person based on that stereotype.

To take a trivial example, Sri Lankans in general have the stereotype about being somewhat casual about punctuality, especially in attending social events. This has an element of truth and I recognize it. So when one is invited to dinner at a Sri Lankan home, one should not be surprised to see people arrive at a range of times spanning a couple of hours.

But recently I was invited to a surprise party in the US where a sizeable number of Sri Lankan Americans had been invited. These kinds of parties depend on all the guests arriving by the scheduled time in order for the surprise to be effective. I discovered that all the Sri Lankan invitees had been given a starting time that was an hour earlier than that given to other guests, on the assumption that then they would arrive by the scheduled time. When I discovered this little ruse after arrival, I found it mildly offensive, even though it would have been too petty to complain. I resented being put in a box, when the hosts had no idea whether I was a punctual person or not. From my personal experience I knew that, despite the stereotype, there are many Sri Lankans who are punctual and they should not have to be treated based on the stereotype.

This is where I think the problem lies. While it is perhaps inevitable that each of us harbors prejudices about other groups of people based on stereotypes, we should not base any specific actions on them. It is not what we believe that is the problem, it is what we do with those beliefs.

To be continued tomorrow…

POST SCRIPT: Real Time with Bill Maher discussion on religion

Bill Maher, Salman Rushdie, Ben Affleck, and Andrew Sullivan discuss religion on the TV program Real Time.

The struggle against stereotypes and prejudices

Growing up in Sri Lanka, I never met any African Americans. As far as I could tell, none ever lived there. Looking back at that time, the only African American in Sri Lanka that I can recall was the US Ambassador to that country, whose picture occasionally appeared in the paper giving a speech at some formal function or attending some cocktail party. Given that my only contact with African Americans (if you can call it contact since, not being a member of high society, I never actually met him) was based on a single very important and distinguished-looking black man, you might expect that growing up I would have been spared the acquisition of negative stereotypes of black people that we saw surfacing during the post-Katrina coverage.
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Using Katrina to beat up on poor people

There is no question that people of color lag behind whites in almost all the indicators of social and economic well-being. One can respond to this realization by seeing it as a consequence of institutional structures that perpetuate long standing injustices, try to identify the causes of this situation, and urge the adoption of measures that provide the promise of ameliorating those injustices.

Or one can adopt the much easier course and either blame such people for their condition by saying that they willfully engage in behaviors that are self-destructive (which I call the socio-pathological model of inequality) or argue that this condition is due to largely unchangeable (and presumably genetic) qualities.

One reason that the immediate (and false) characterization of people in New Orleans as primarily antisocial beings who used the breakdown of civil society to engage in widespread and rampant looting, thuggery, raping, and murdering was so easily believed is that this is how poor people are often portrayed. And Katrina enabled a lot of pundits to dust off their well-worn sermons on what is wrong with poor people.

George Will uses the occasion to point the finger of blame at unmarried African American women with children.

Given that most African Americans are middle class and almost half live outside central cities, and that 76 percent of all births to Louisiana African Americans were to unmarried women, it is a safe surmise that more than 80 percent of African American births in inner-city New Orleans — as in some other inner cities — were to women without husbands. That translates into a large and constantly renewed cohort of lightly parented adolescent males, and that translates into chaos in neighborhoods and schools, come rain or come shine.

And you can always rely on Charles Murray (of The Bell Curve fame) to surface again and recycle his thesis that America has a permanent “underclass” that is beyond improvement, due to largely hereditarian factors. It does not matter that his book (co-authored by Richard Herrnstein) has been shown to be really shoddy scholarship. As Nicholas Lehman asserts: “The Bell Curve, it turns out, is full of mistakes ranging from sloppy reasoning to mis-citations of sources to outright mathematical errors. Unsurprisingly, all the mistakes are in the direction of supporting the authors’ thesis.”

But people like Murray, however much their work is shot down (See The Bell Curve Wars: Race, Intelligence, and the Future of America, Steve Fraser (Ed.), Basic Books, 1995) are always given access to mainstream media to repeat their tired charges of the hopelessness of trying to improve the “underclass”. For people like him, the supposed bad behavior is merely ‘The hallmark of the underclass,’ which is the title of his piece in the latest platform he has been given, the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal where he says:

Other images show us the face of the hard problem: those of the looters and thugs, and those of inert women doing nothing to help themselves or their children. They are the underclass.

The lack of home ownership is not caused by the inability to save money from meager earnings, but because the concept of thrift is alien. You name it, we’ve tried it. It doesn’t work with the underclass.

Despite the exceptions that get the newspaper ink, the statistical reality is that people who get into the American job market and stay there seldom remain poor unless they do something self-destructive. And behaving self-destructively is the hallmark of the underclass.
Hurricane Katrina temporarily blew away the screens that we have erected to keep the underclass out of sight and out of mind. We are now to be treated to a flurry of government efforts from politicians who are shocked, shocked, by what they saw.

Ezra Klein writing in The American Prospect gives Murray his deserved comeuppance

Which brings us to today’s Wall Street Journal atrocity. Penned by Charles Murray, he of The Bell Curve fame, it argues that what we’re seeing post-Katrina isn’t poverty but a once-again visible “underclass,” a sort of shadow society of unsocialized black men with no appetite for work, no capacity to hold jobs, and no ability to be helped through conventional methods. They are, quite literally, savages, unable to function in the world the rest of us inhabit. They are, as he puts it, the “looters and the thugs,” not to mention the “inert women doing nothing to help themselves or their children.” And government attempts to craft helpful policy will fail because, after all, it doesn’t matter if you give a gorilla a college loan, it’s still a gorilla.

I’ve no idea where Murray got the idea that the New Orleans evacuees lacked jobs rather than cars and social skills rather than transportation – from deep within his own prejudices, I’d guess. And where he got the concept that these men and women are somehow incapable of holding jobs and unwilling to send their children to school – that’s all similarly obscure. The absence of autos affects the social and the unsocialized alike; the folks you see on buses are often en route to jobs they hold, contra Murray, perfectly well.

But if his argument is flawed, its aim is clear. All those stories of urban anarchy were, to Murray, accurate, everyday manifestations of the Black people we’d hidden from sight. The normal explanation, that their assumed bad behavior was a reaction to extraordinary circumstance – that was the wrong part. This had nothing to do with Katrina; it was part and parcel of an inferior race, an incorrigible culture.

It is too much to hope that Murray will disappear from the opinion pages of major newspapers. People like him will surface to repeat the same tired and discredited message whenever there is another social upheaval. But there is no reason that we should let their ideas go unchallenged. And the way we do that is be very wary of initial news reports that are unsubstantiated but appeal to popular prejudices. Because otherwise rumors become ‘facts’ and then the ‘facts’ are used to create policies that are more punitive than helpful.

In the final analysis, events like Katrina and our response may reveal more about us and our deeply held prejudices than it does about the nature of the people directly affected by the disaster.

POST SCRIPT: An Atheist’s Manifesto

Sam Harris comes out with another strong essay titled There is No God (And You Know It). Check it out. It is well worth reading.

Why were the New Orleans stories believed?

The degree to which the stories of mayhem in the Superdome and Convention Center were overblown is captured in this story in the Seattle Times:

After five days managing near riots, medical horrors and unspeakable living conditions inside the Superdome, Louisiana National Guard Col. Thomas Beron prepared to hand over the dead to representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Following days of internationally reported murders, rapes and gang violence inside the stadium, the doctor from FEMA – Beron doesn’t remember his name – came prepared for a grisly scene: He brought a refrigerated 18-wheeler and three doctors to process bodies.

“I’ve got a report of 200 bodies in the Dome,” Beron recalled the doctor saying.

The real total?

Six, Beron said.
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When rumors kill

In a series of previous posts (see here and here), I suggested that we should all be very skeptical of news reports that immediately follow any major news event because those early versions can turn out to be very wrong on the facts but succeed in leaving a highly misleading imprint on the minds of people.

In particular, I pointed out that governments and official sources often lie to reporters so that they can initially get favorable reactions and support for their actions, knowing that people tend to be reluctant to change their views later, even if the facts change. I gave as examples of such lies Reagan’s comments on the aftermath of the shooting of the Iranian Airbus airliner, Clinton’s justification for the bombing of the Sudanese pharmaceutical factory, and the British authorities’ initial version of the killing of the innocent Brazilian in the wake of the London bombings in July. And of course, we have the whole series of lies about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, which turns out to be one of the biggest and most reprehensible causes of the invasion of Iraq and the consequent debacle that is currently occurring in that country.
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Paley’s watch, Mount Rushmore, and other stories of intelligent design – 2

In the previous posting I described a popular IDC argument that things like watches and Mount Rushmore are obviously ‘designed’ objects and thus imply the existence of a designer. By analogy, it is asserted that certain biological systems are also supposed to bear the hallmarks of design and thus must require a designer (aka god) too.

This argument seems to be persuasive to many people because I repeatedly hear it various forms. The usual response to it by scientists is to argue that the appearance of biological design is only an illusion and that random mutation and natural selection are perfectly capable of producing the seemingly complex biological forms that seem to stymie the IDC people.

But there is a philosophical issue here as well and that is what I want to address. First of all, while we all supposedly can agree that a watch and Mount Rushmore could not have simply appeared without human action, how is it that we are so sure that this is the case that we can accede to it without argument? How is it that in these cases we can definitely identify them as designed objects and say that other things (like rocks) are not designed?
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Paley’s watch, Mount Rushmore, and other stories of intelligent design

One does not have to spend much time reading about intelligent design creationism (IDC) to come across the “Mount Rushmore” argument. IDC advocate William Dembski even begins an article with it as follows:

Intelligent design begins with a seemingly innocuous question: Can objects, even if nothing is known about how they arose, exhibit features that reliably signal the action of an intelligent cause? To see what’s at stake, consider Mount Rushmore. The evidence for Mount Rushmore’s design is direct—eyewitnesses saw the sculptor Gutzon Borglum spend the better part of his life designing and building this structure. But what if there were no direct evidence for Mount Rushmore’s design? What if humans went extinct and aliens, visiting the earth, discovered Mount Rushmore in substantially the same condition as it is now?
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It’s the Rael thing – 3

In two previous posts (here and here), I discussed how the Raelian theory of how life was far more comprehensive than that of intelligent design creationist theory. So all the arguments used by IDC (intelligent design creationist) advocates for inclusion of their theory in science curricula apply even more strongly to Raelian theory. Furthermore, while some might be able to dismiss the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster as a Johnny-come-lately competitor to IDC doctrine, that charge cannot be leveled against the Raelian model which has been around since the early 1970s and claims over 35,000 believers in over eighty five countries (according to Robert T. Pennock in his book Tower of Babel). So Raelism actually precedes the latest incarnation of intelligent design.

The belief structure of the Raelians is based upon messages sent to Earth from the extra-terrestrial Elohim race through Claude Vorilhon (a French journalist and race car enthusiast) who claims that he was twice contacted by aliens who came in flying saucers and revealed to him the story of how life originated on Earth. Vorilhon is called the “Guide of Guides” by his followers and adopted the name of Rael.

But is the Raelian theory of life science? In a series of earlier postings, I said that for a theory to be even considered as a candidate for science it had to meet two necessary conditions. One was that it had to be naturalistic (and by this I mean methodological naturalism and not philosophical or metaphysical or ontological naturalism) and the second was that it had to be predictive. The latter feature meant that the theory had to have some feature or mechanism that enabled it to be used to make predictions, because that was what made a theory useful to scientists.

I said that IDC failed on both counts, since it had the idea of an intelligent designer who was undetectable and could not be counted upon to act in predictably in a manner that could be tested by any sort of observations.

The Raelians are one step better than IDC theorists in that their theory is materialistic in that the designer who produced the seemingly designed biological species was not a supernatural deity but merely space aliens.

But the Raelian theory suffers from the fact that their theory is not predictive. There is nothing in their theory that enables scientists to do anything with it. All scientists can do is to wait around until the aliens decide to visit us again and show us their latest creations.

This is the problem with all theories that contain appeals to revelation, divine or otherwise. While they may be satisfying an emotional and spiritual need, and appeal to their faithful followers (and there is nothing wrong with that), they simply do not provide science with anything useful to work with.

The scientific community rejects the inclusion of Raelian and IDC theories within the family of scientific theories, not because they are inherently opposed to revelatory notions (after all, many scientists are religious), but because such types of theories have no applications.

The Raelian theory also just pushes the evolutionary question one step away. After all, how did the Elohim come about on their own planet? How did they become so advanced in their technology? Did they too evolve according to some Darwinian model? Or were they created by another alien race? According to the FAQ on their website, the Raelians were created by other extraterrestrials and so on, and that one day the people on Earth will similarly populate other planets. This is, of course, an infinite regression model, but not more difficult than the “who created god?” question posed to believers in a god. As long as you are only interested in how life came to be on Earth, the Raelian model “explains” it well.

But it would be interesting to see how IDC theorists respond to Raelian theory. If IDC theory is accepted by various school boards for inclusion in the school science curriculum because it “explains” some things that evolutionary theory cannot, then I do not see any grounds for rejecting Raelianism. In fact, using the IDC yardstick, Raelianism should actually replace IDC in schools because it “explains” everything that IDC does and some others things that IDC theory does not have ready explanations for, thus clealy being a better theory.

The Raelians have so far not been pushing for the inclusion of their ideas in science classes. But it would not surprise me if, if IDC people succeed in the court case currently underway in Dover, PA, they seize the opportunity to urge that their own program be included in science curricula too. (See here for a blog on the trial maintained by the ACLU which is challenging the Dover school board’s decision. Interestingly, Robert Pennock, whose book I have been quoting about the Raelians, testified yesterday.)

Coming soon to a courtroom near you, the case of Intelligent Design v. Raelianism….

POST SCRIPT: Update on the trial of “The St. Patrick’s Four”

In the trial of the antiwar protest group referred to in the post script of a previous posting, they were acquitted of the serious felony charge of conspiracy but were found guilty of misdemeanor charges of damage to property and trespassing.