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I Love Stereotypes Just as I Love My Enemies
Who draws the line at social prejudice?
I was conversing with someone until the dialogue was interrupted after I mentioned the word “retarded” and was kindly asked to refrain from using it because it's derogatory. In a hypothetical shower thought, the stubborn-free-speech-absolutist part of me would have stated that IQ is the most reliable predictor of success in a wide range of domains, and that recent studies tend to suggest that it is highly heritable, making a strong case that some people are by definition retarded, and therefore replacing this word with a euphemism is simply hypocritical – and in a prolonged effort of bravery, I would have crossed my arms and concluded with, “Facts don't care about your feelings”. What happened instead is that I apologized first and made a conscious effort to avoid saying that word again in front of that person – not necessarily because I generally care about making people feel comfortable, but mostly because I'm afraid of being judged.
The strange thing about the word “retarded” is that I have become unusually familiar with it. I partly think of myself as retarded, I went to a school for the retarded, and people thought of me as retarded. The more recent years suggest that I've gotten better at fooling people into thinking I'm not retarded, or maybe they've become more empathetic – even my therapist once thought I was a brilliant person, but I'm paying her to say that. Admittedly, most people can become less stupid by dedicating time to educating themselves, and for the less fortunate it probably doesn't help to be labeled as such, but the idea that certain adjectives can be harmful is not new and is often debated.
The morality of prejudice
There are overt forms of prejudice, such as physical violence, explicit forms of discrimination, and verbal abuse. And there are more subtle forms of prejudice, such as implicit language, microaggressions, and stereotypes. While the vast majority of people strongly condemn the former, there are good reasons to believe in a much greater disparity of judgments for the latter. When I try to conceptualize how far prejudice can extend, I often think of Coca-Cola. You see, among the 70,000 shareholders of “The Coca-Cola Company,” how many would you classify as racist? 1%, 10%, maybe more? You could say Zero, but that's extremely unlikely. Assuming it's at least one, it would mean that if you buy one of their products, you're probably funding racist people and indirectly participating in some form of prejudice. Now that you're aware of this fact, would buying their products make you a racist person?
You may find this reasoning absurd and based on a ridiculous level of extrapolation, and I would certainly agree with you. Some people's threshold for what is considered racist is not that far from the bottle of Coke, and at the other end of the spectrum, it is basically the 19th century definition of racism. In between these two extremes is where people's threshold for racism falls. Of course, there are multiple thresholds as there are many forms of prejudice, each covering different groups of individuals. In theory, we could plot an entire population's thresholds on a graph and discover a median threshold for each category of prejudice. This could reveal the existence of patterns of statements on which fifty percent of the population would agree and the other half would disagree. You might wonder, where are my thresholds on this graph?
Because we are above all social creatures, we spend a lot of time thinking about what others might think of us. And our social conformity instincts protect us from being perceived negatively by the people we care about, and the other way around, we don't want to think of them as bad people. As a result, we tend to categorize what others identify as right or wrong, and this eventually materializes as an intuition to predict which statement should be judged as morally reprehensible. In this regard, our thresholds are most likely a social construct based on those around us, and I suspect they're rooted in the median thresholds of the other groups to which we belong. If that weren't the case, our thresholds would be evenly distributed, and we'd be just as cautious about any prejudice, including those related to distant tribes. This story applies to the vast majority of individuals, but a few people can self-reflect and conclude that their thresholds do not meet their standards, and voluntarily disengage in calibrating them with their peers. Sometimes they may even blame them, but they soon realize that they were also adjusting their threshold on behalf of other groups who had been influenced by more distant groups, and the long chain of causality would probably end at the origin of the universe.
Our thresholds are not accurate either, since there are many things that we consider safe but would likely cause more prejudice than things we consider harmful. Ideally, we would possess a divine spreadsheet filled with a prejudice score for every existing statement and base our threshold on a measurable unit. In the real world, it's more difficult to accurately quantify a statement's potential prejudice power; the consequences can vary depending on the speaker, the audience, and the context. Nevertheless, we convince ourselves of having the right threshold, and will consider people with lower thresholds than us to be exaggerating, and those with higher thresholds to be less compassionate. One day we may encounter someone who provokes a strong moral reaction, and they may ask us why we think it's wrong. And since thresholds are mainly constructed by association, we might feel clueless, but we will end up rationalizing, and incentivizing the other person to do exactly the same thing, forming an everlasting spiral of arguments. On rare occasions, we would agree on an intermediate threshold for a specific statement, even though the rest of our thresholds will likely remain identical.
The lack of proven methods of quantification makes it pointless to blame other people's thresholds, since your sole moral influence cannot compete with the gravitational force of social circles. This makes a good case for why activism against prejudice happens in politics, because it's practically achievable to change the status quo on certain social issues by shifting one of the country's median thresholds in one direction. Perhaps someday we will discover the prejudice gene, but in the meantime, the most effective approach would suggest a systemic change. And when you think of anti-stereotyping policies in these terms, you might wonder about the reasons that drive people against them. Do those who oppose the teaching of Critical Race Theory fundamentally disagree with it, or are they more afraid that one day their children will return from school and start to disagree with their thresholds?
The enemy of my enemy is my friend
It's harder to be compassionate in group thinking than on an individual scale. I myself hold a bunch of negative stereotypes about people that I believe are wrong. I find it convenient to think of anti-vaxxers as a dumb movement, and consider that trusting Joe Rogan as a result of doing your own due diligence is even better than an IQ test for proving stupidity. However, I've met them in person (since I lived in Bali), and I don't think any of these people were morons – one of them even believed in the Covid-19 and 5G conspiracy, and was a talented violinist. I've associated the fear-mongers who advocate the end of fiat currencies for Bitcoin as showing early signs of dementia, but whenever I meet a Blockchain enthusiast, I see a passionate grown child hoping to be part of something bigger. I had preconceived opinions about the eugenics movement, but when I followed some of them on Twitter, I found some genuine humanists who simply believe we should sterilize people below a certain IQ threshold.
Stereotypes are rarely accurate, and I usually tend to suppress them in real life, although I still keep a couple. I've seen people advocating for having compassion instead of stereotypes, but my internal dialogue somehow disagrees with that narrative because I see stereotypes as having instrumental values that can lead to positive outcomes. I've used mine to sympathize with people I probably wouldn't have listened to, like Hasan Piker, who won me over when he started criticizing people in cryptos, which eventually became a gateway to listening to a range of people in the same political league. I've enjoyed reading very smart intellectuals who I initially disliked, but because they shared a common disdain for anti-vaxxers, they got my approval stamp. I even used stereotypes against myself by sending a letter to my company's CTO to review my compensation, justifying my complaint on the basis of being French. I didn't get the raise, but he told me it was one of the best negotiation letters he had ever seen. Perhaps in the future, I will choose to have fewer stereotypes, which is a potentially healthier option. In the meantime, trading them for a broad expansion of my political spheres is such a delightful experience that I'll probably continue to be charmed by pundits who make fun of my favorite villains, because strangely, my tribal instincts tend to reward those who oppose the people I dislike the most.