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Prejudging a person – assuming that anything is automatically true about them – on the basis of their membership of any involuntary grouping (gender, race, sexuality, nationality, ethnicity, age, eye colour, nostril size, pinky-toe length…) is wrong. Here in the simplest possible form are the main reasons why.

First, most such assertions are made on very shaky ground. Pretty much every major study that has claimed to show substantial differences in innate ability between different groups has been challenged extensively. One study that claimed to show that Asians were academically smarter than whites, who were smarter than blacks, was shown to be deeply flawed because it wasn’t comparing apples with apples: the academic environments in which each group was learning were completely different, with the Japanese segment in the study operating in a context where education is valued and schools and teachers are respected – less the case for the white American cohort, and less again for the African-American segment. As a comparison of different education systems, it might have been useful; as a comparison of relative “innate” racial ability, it was a crock.

Nor is it even possible to establish an adequately controlled, fair, “apples-to-apples” group – anybody’s physical, emotional and psychological development takes place in a culture which loads them with preconceptions about who can achieve what. The power of these expectations is attested to by a study which was done in which four groups, two of men and two of women, did a maths test. All four groups did exactly the same test, but two of the groups (one male, one female) were told beforehand that the test had been “specially designed so that women could do it as easily as men”. When the results came in, the two male groups had done about as well as each other, and so had the group of women who had been told that they could. Only the group of women who were still operating under normal cultural expectations about their own performance did significantly differently than the others – and not surprisingly, they did worse. About as much worse as women normally do on those sorts of tests.

Makes you think, doesn’t it? And calls into question the extensive system of rationalisation called “evolutionary psychology”. What happens to all those arguments about “men had to measure distance and count prey animals, so they’re better at maths and maps” when in point of fact men aren’t necessarily better at those things?

But maybe in some cases there are genuine population-level differences in capability. For instance, for generations African-Americans were bred (like livestock!) for strength. (Yes, forced marriages and impregnations. Hooray for white “civilisation”. Not to say that slaves didn’t trick their “owners”, but that the attempt was even made… gross.) So let’s allow hypothetically that perhaps there is some truth to the argument that African-Americans tend to be physically superior to whites. (Anyone who argues in parallel that surviving as a slave selects for lower intelligence, however, is clearly not thinking the thing through. I’m not conceding that one, even hypothetically.) Let’s allow further that this tendency is genetic and not a product of the culture and the physical environment in which people grow up. If the difference is the result of several generations of selective breeding, doesn’t that rather suggest that even genetic differences can and will change over time, as cultures shift and start selecting for different things?

The clincher

Even if we set aside all arguments about whether significant differences in innate ability really exist, and if so what causes them and how fixed they actually are, and accept the assertion that at the population level people of group A will tend to be better at X than people of group B, or less “Y” or whatever… that still means absolutely nothing when it comes to dealing with any given individual.

For instance, if you believe that women are innately better at emotional stuff than men (and I have seen extraordinary emotional skill from men, both good and deeply, manipulatively bad; but I digress), and you encounter a man who bucks the trend… do you pretend he is an emotional klutz, or do you treat him as someone with good emotional skills?

And until you know which he is, aren’t you better off withholding judgment and remaining open to all possibilities until you have adequate information?

And further, and more radically, if you actively want men to have some degree of emotional competence… and you take on board what we’ve learned about the power of negative expectations to limit achievement… aren’t you far better off abstaining from making generalised pronunciations about “men are emotional idiots”?

In other words, a culture which genuinely wants all its members to achieve the most they can will be very careful about accepting generalisations about one group being not as whatever-quality-is-under-discussion as another, even if there is some evidence that it might presently be true, because the only thing making it true might be that self-fulfilling expectation.

While there is always value in analysing the current big picture – and if you’re interested in justice, it is essential to be able to say that group X is not pulling its weight relative to group Y, or is benefiting more, et cetera – such comments need to be phrased in ways that limit the generalisation appropriately and emphasise the possibility of change.

Insistence on blanket assertions that “women just can’t read maps” or “Aboriginal people can’t manage more than a Certificate 1” (made quite seriously by a senior Australian public servant – to an Aboriginal professor!) is therefore not only moronic. It is actively sabotaging the people about whom it is made. And therefore it is wrong in every sense of the word.

More reading (to be updated as I find my old link collection):


Blink by Malcolm Gladwell (blog here) has some useful discussions of false snap judgments as well as accurate ones

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