October 28, 2010

Stereotyping is irrational but normal?

An interesting article addresses some of the points I address frequently:

We Are All Juan Williams

Associating minorities with crime is irrational, unjust, and completely normal.

By Shankar Vedantam
I am not suggesting that associating ordinary Muslims with terrorists is either rational or right. It's neither. But the association arises via a normal aspect of brain functioning, which is precisely why so many people entertain such beliefs—and why those beliefs have proved so resistant to challenge.

The left is wrong to wish the association away only by pointing out how unfair it is, because that denies the reality of how our minds work. The right is wrong to believe the association must be accurate merely because it is widespread.
Slight problem with this left/right formulation. Liberals don't just wish racist and stereotypical thinking away. We constantly challenge ignorant opinions and educate people about the truth.

As with any educational endeavor, this is a matter of hard work, not wishful thinking. People have devoted lifetimes to addressing small aspects of the problem. For instance, by promoting Native fishing rights, Native libraries, or Native actors in Hollywood. Or Native comic books. Each of these is one piece of the puzzle, but progress requires decades, not months or years.

The article goes on to discuss the kind of thinking I addressed in Stereotypes as Mental Maps:These automatic associations make evolutionary sense. If one of our ancestors was wandering in a desert and came by a snake curled up next to the only tree on the landscape, her mind would connect not just that tree with that snake, but all trees with snakes. Illusory correlations are all about seeking out group patterns based on rare individual incidents: all trees and snakes and all flights with stomach upsets, rather than that one tree and that one snake, or that one flight and that one stomach upset. Scientists say correlation isn't causation, but, from an evolutionary point of view, if the snake-tree link is wrong, all that would happen is our ancestor would avoid all trees in the future. If the link was real and she failed to see it, she could get herself killed. Our ancestors constantly drew conclusions about their environment based on limited evidence. Waiting for causative evidence could have proved costly, whereas extrapolating causation from correlation was less costly.Does incorrectly fearing trees really make evolutionary sense? Think of all the health-inducing food and medicinal products you might miss by fearing trees. Would natural selection prefer people who fear all trees irrationally or those who fear only the dangerous trees associated with snakes?

Consider the dietary laws in Leviticus. Do these also make evolutionary sense? Have the people who practice these seemingly irrational laws done better than the ones who haven't? I suppose it's possible, but show me the evidence.Juan Williams pointed out on Fox that we do not associate Timothy McVeigh and the rude people who protest about homosexuality at military funerals with Christianity. But he didn't understand why our minds fail to make that connection. Illusory correlations disproportionately afflict minorities because, in making associations, we mainly link unlikely events. Whites and Christians are not minorities; they are like the newspaper delivered to our front door every day. We do not associate McVeigh with Christians any more than we associate our upset stomach with the newspaper.

Muslims are only the latest victim of illusory correlations in the United States. African-Americans have long suffered the same bias when it comes to crime. In every country on earth, you can find minority groups that get tagged with various pathologies for no better reason than that the pathologies are unusual and the minorities are minorities.

Whenever people who strongly believe in illusory correlations are challenged about their beliefs, they invariably find ways to make their behavior seem conscious and rational. Those who would explicitly link all Muslims with terrorism might point to evidence showing that some Muslims say they want to wage a war against the West, that a large preponderance of terrorist attacks today are carried out by Muslims, and so on. This is similar to our longstanding national narrative about blacks and crime.

But even if blacks and whites do not commit crimes at the same rate, and even if Muslims are overrepresented among today's terrorists, our mental associations between these groups and heinous events are made disproportionately large by the unconscious bias that causes us to form links between unusual events and minorities.

The researchers Franklin D. Gilliam Jr., Shanto Iyengar, Adam Simon, and Oliver Wright once conducted a simple experiment that demonstrated how illusory correlations work: They showed volunteers a television news program that featured a violent crime. Some volunteers were shown a white suspect, while others were shown a black suspect, but everything else about the program remained identical. The volunteers who saw the black face were more likely to blame blacks as a whole for rising crime than the volunteers who saw the white suspect were to blame whites for rising crime. (The volunteers in the white scenario blamed that individual suspect for the crime.) The bias showed up among white as well as black volunteers.
All good points, but see my previous comments about how liberals favor education. Unlike conservatives, we don't encourage people to fear gays, Muslims, or trees. We educate them with information about these things. If people are too blind or stupid to learn after being given the facts...well, that's another problem.

For more on the subject, see Why People Don't Care About Indians and Background Research on Native Stereotypes.

Below:  "Savage Indian" stereotypes may have made "evolutionary sense" 150 years ago, but what's the excuse for them 150 years later? This is the 21st century, people, not the 19th.

No comments: