Monday, December 4, 2017

A Useful Defect

     Humans generally share it. The majority of expressed sentiment appears to be against it. We criticize it, at least in particular contexts, yet we continue to exhibit it in those contexts and others. When it manifests in our own behavior, we produce a justification for it that, were it to be offered by others, we’d reject with a sneer. If it’s so widely deplored and decried, why does it persist?

     Because it’s useful.

     What “defect” do I have in mind, Gentle Reader? Use your guess to produce an example of a situation in which you would condemn it. Then produce an example of a situation in which you would use it and be guided by it. Is it really a “defect” if it’s useful enough to be propagated from generation to generation?

     Take a moment over it.


     Have a bit of “logic:”

Postulate: Members of group X possess characteristic Y.
Hypothesis: Mr. A is a member of group X.
Conclusion: Mr. A possesses characteristic Y.

     The above is a simple syllogism of the sort we were all taught to recognize in tenth-grade geometry class. If P, then Q; P; therefore, Q. Right? The form is impeccable; the mechanism is exquisite; the conclusion is irresistible. But despite all that, it’s not quite right. Why?

     Because people are not geometric figures. The postulate itself is a generalization to which there are surely exceptions. We know better than to claim that all members of any human group will exhibit any particular characteristic. Yet in innumerable situations we use such a syllogism to make our decisions, including decisions that could prove critical to life and limb.

     The formal term for such decision making is prejudice. The colloquial term is playing the odds.

     Many persons have inveighed against such decision making. They usually call it “unfair.” And it is unfair...in certain contexts. In others, it’s the best we can do. But persons of a particular bent will not respond sympathetically to this argument.

     What bent is that, you ask? Whoops, coffee cup’s empty again. Back in a jiffy.


     Only a couple of months ago, I wrote:

          Perceptible patterns among adequately defined groups are the basis of stereotypes. The late Joseph Sobran once called stereotypes “amateur sociology.” The bien-pensants are quick to denounce stereotypes, and to call anyone who makes use of one a bigot of some sort. But a stereotype that doesn’t prove accurate more often than not would not last. If the exceptions outnumber those who conform, making the pattern more illusory than real, they can’t fairly be called exceptions.

     In his “Ten Conservative Principles,” the late Russell Kirk, one of the godfathers of contemporary conservatism, expressed a sense that stereotypes and the prejudices they sometimes animate have a place we should not deny to them:

     It is perilous to weigh every passing issue on the basis of private judgment and private rationality. The individual is foolish, but the species is wise, Burke declared. In politics we do well to abide by precedent and precept and even prejudice, for the great mysterious incorporation of the human race has acquired a prescriptive wisdom far greater than any man’s petty private rationality.

     Despite the wisdom it expresses, there are some limitations to Kirk’s defense of prescription according to longevity of usage. It is unfair and unjust, for example, to judge an individual on any basis other than his individual character and merits – if one has the time and opportunity to find out what those are. But as is the case wherever it appears, the critical word in the previous sentence is if.

     If the pattern is sound, the exceptions will be fewer than the conformants. We may wish it were otherwise; indeed, in many cases it will be our fondest desire. But desire is not a basis for rational thought.

     In reflecting on that passage, I realized that I had omitted an important case.

Let X be a group of humans 10% of which exhibit characteristic Y. Let Mr. A be a member of group X.
Q1: With no opportunity to get to know Mr. A personally, should one assume that he possesses characteristic Y?
Q2: Does the nature of characteristic Y have any bearing on the answer to Q1?

     Had enough time to think about your answers to those questions? Good! Now for the haymaker: What if characteristic Y is an inclination toward murder, enslavement, and rape?

     Don’t answer all at once.


     There was no reason to delay. Retma had already pronounced the epitaph for Man: We did not have the time to learn everything that we wanted to know.
     "So be it," Amalfi said. He touched the button over his heart.
     Creation began.

     [James Blish, The Triumph of Time.]

     Time is our most precious possession. We can’t manufacture it or store it. Nor are we allowed, in the nature of things, to know how much we have.

     The acquisition of information takes time. Sometimes – often – we don’t have enough time to learn what we’d like to know. Sometimes, other priorities militate against it. This is particularly the case, and particularly painful, when applied to human groups.

     If the members of a group overwhelmingly possess some dangerous characteristic, perhaps as carriers of an infectious disease, it’s wise to make a policy of avoiding them. If the members of a group mostly possess such a characteristic, it’s wise to be cautious about one’s interactions and exposure to that group. If some members possess it but slightly less than a majority, one might be inclined toward a slightly lesser degree of caution...but the degree of caution impelled would depend on the seriousness of the disease.

     So also with diseases of the mind, such as race-hatred and Islam.


     If you’re wondering why this, and why today, here’s your answer. It’s not uncommon to encounter persons who pride themselves on their intellect, yet who are capable of great folly. One cannot proceed from platitude to prescription with the sort of confidence that article exhibits...but there are “thinkers” who do it all the time.

     Thinking is a dangerous undertaking, especially if one intends to “think aloud.” I look back over my own record of audible and legible folly with a great deal of embarrassment...yet I do it, though perhaps not as often as one who writes copious op-ed should.

     The Russell Kirk citation above exhibits a great deal of insight. Yes, our generalizations are overwhelmingly likely to have exceptions. (Some of them will have more exceptions than conformants.) But that doesn’t mean they aren’t useful, especially in those contexts where we cannot possibly know all we need or want to know.

     The goal isn’t necessarily always to be “just.” Sometimes it’s to keep life in one’s body, to protect those one loves, or to avert the possibility of damage or loss. Under such circumstances one may justifiably play the odds as one knows them rather than focus fanatically on the existence of exceptions. If it’s a defect, I consider it a markedly useful one. Your mileage may vary.

1 comment:

Dystopic said...

I may have to write my own post on this subject. Suffice it to say, I read the original article you linked to and an enormous fallacy jumped out at me. Mr. Gore claims that any exception invalidates the generalization.

It hit me like a freight train. He's trying to treat people like a science experiment, where one counterexample invalidates the hypothesis. People do not operate that way! If 90% of Group X does Y, the generalization is valid as a generalization. Generalizations are categorically not always true for all individual members. They don't have to be. Finding a single counterexample does not render the generalization meaningless as Mr. Gore claims.

The inability to separate the individual from the generalization boggles my mind, Francis. I do not understand how a person can think as Mr. Gore does. It is entirely consistent to say "I think Islam is generally predisposed to violence" and "that Muslim I met at the market yesterday was a nice, peaceful man."

How are these people so blind?