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Why Prejudice Is Bad

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Aya Katz has a PhD in linguistics from Rice University. She is an ape language researcher and the author of Vacuum County and other novels.

Everybody agrees that prejudice is bad. I have never in my life met anyone who was in favor of prejudice. There is such universal agreement on this topic that it makes us feel united. Except when it comes to actual instances of prejudice. Then nobody seems to agree.

Taking a stand against prejudice is almost like taking a stand against evil. Nobody likes "evil," so everybody agrees with you. But then when it comes to identifying what evil is, where it is found, and what we should do about it, there's a wide divergence of opinion.

In the case of evil, this phenomenon is perfectly understandable and transparent. "Evil" is just a word for "very, very bad." And "bad" is a word for things we don't like. And different people don't like different things to differing degrees. So universal agreement about "evil" is not forthcoming. Not now and not ever.

But the case of prejudice, I think, is a little bit different. Prejudice actually means something. It's not just a pejorative term for behavior or thinking that we don't like.

The Definition of Prejudice

Prejudice means prejudging. Prejudging can be driven by a limited data set or it can be completely arbitrary and unmotivated.

A person could formulate a statement about reality without making any effort to test it, such as "the moon is made of cheese." If, when presented with evidence that this is not so, such as samples brought back from the moon, he is unwilling to change his mind or consider the evidence, we label such a person "prejudiced."

Please keep in mind that it is not the original belief about the moon's composition is that is the prejudice. The prejudice is the unwillingness to revise the original opinion when presented with evidence to the contrary.

Our preliminary opinion about any topic may be mistaken. An open-minded person is constantly revising mistaken opinions when evidence to the contrary comes to light. Prejudice is the unwillingness to consider evidence.

In many cases, a mistaken opinion is based on over-generalization from known instances. We may observe that all the bats we have seen are black, and then go on to formulate a hypothesis that bats must be, by their very nature, black. So far, so good. But when presented with a sighting of a bat that isn't black, a prejudiced person will not be willing to change his theory.

In the real world, the use of statistical data about the known members of a category in order to predict the traits of a specific member of the same category is a common practice. There is nothing wrong with this practice, because we all engage in induction as a means of trying to understand the world we live in.

Prejudice is the failure to heed direct evidence from counterexamples to hypothesized predictive rules.

The direct consequence of prejudice is ignorance. Indirect consequences that often follow include an inability to make appropriate choices that enhance the chances of one's own survival.

Prohibitions against prejudice can be found in texts prescribing rules for scientific investigation of reality, the ethical treatment of conspecifics and even in books prescribing proper etiquette.

Our preliminary opinion about any topic may be mistaken. An open-minded person is constantly revising mistaken opinions when evidence to the contrary comes to light. Prejudice is the unwillingness to consider evidence.

Science, Ethics and Etiquette

In science, prejudice prevents us from discovering facts about the world we live in. In ethics, prejudice leads to unfair treatment of individuals. In etiquette, behavior that betrays one's prejudices is considered taboo.

But what happens when we mix categories? What would happen if we applied rules of etiquette to science or rules of scientific inquiry to ethics?

Ethics and etiquette are related, both etymologically and in terms of cultural provenance. But while ethics aims toward a fair treatment of conspecifics in terms of function, etiquette is more concerned with the appearance of tolerance.

While ethics would require one not to judge another before sufficient evidence has been presented, etiquette requires us to behave as if we haven't judged, even if in fact we already have. Etiquette aims to preserve the social peace, while ethics is meant to keep the actual treatment of others fair. Both serve a function, but it is not the same function.

Let's say you go to a party where you come across somebody you don't like. You might have good reason to dislike the person. You may know that he steals or cheats or beats his wife or kicks his dog.

However, this is not the right venue to bring all that up. (And there may never be a right venue—as his habits may not be any of your business.) Only a boor would mention all this at a social event that is meant to be festive and meaningless. So a person who has proper etiquette will behave civilly to the other person he does not like.

This does not mean that no judging has taken place. It just means that the social event in question is neither the time nor the place to address any of the misdeeds for which the other has been judged. Tolerance is exercised: you simply ignore what you don't like about the person, thereby helping to maintain the peace.

But suppose you applied the standard of etiquette to someone accused of a crime? Suppose you didn't tell him what crime he stands accused of, thus preventing him from ever exonerating himself? Suppose, instead, that you cast him into a deep dark dungeon from which he can never emerge? That would be bad. That would be prejudging at its worst.

What if instead of throwing him into a dungeon you issue an unconditional pardon? That would also be bad. You are still preventing him from having his day in court and clearing his name. Tolerance has no place in ethics. Ethics concerns itself with fairness. Fairness requires an investigation of the facts. It requires us to examine the evidence.

Because we are not omniscient, when another person stands accused of a crime, we apply a high burden of proof that if not met will set the accused free and result in a finding of "not guilty." Since we must perforce err, we err on the side of innocence, because it is better for a guilty man to go free than for an innocent to suffer.

But what if we used a burden of proof such as this in science? What would that mean? It would mean that we have a bias and a social agenda. It would mean that our science is less concerned with investigating reality than with maintaining a particular view of reality.

In science, there should be no bias. A single counterexample is enough to overturn a hypothesis. In science, if we don't know whether something is true, we can simply admit ignorance. We aren't required to make a judgment when there is not evidence enough to decide one way or the other.

Puzzling Examples of Prejudice

In my life, I have often been startled by the prejudices that I've encountered. I'm sure I have plenty of prejudices of my own, but until they are brought to our attention, most of us are unaware of our misconceptions. It is not so much people's misconceptions that puzzle me as the inability to revise an opinion once new evidence is brought to light.

When I was 11, my family moved to Grand Prairie, Texas. The process of assimilating to this new environment was difficult, but I did manage to make a friend during my first year there. She was a girl in my class, who like me, enjoyed poetry and playing dolls. One day, she made the following offhand observation: "Guys don't write poetry."

I was startled. I said: "Why do you think that?"

"Well, they don't even like poetry. Poetry is something girls like."

"But some of the most famous poets in the world were men!" I said. "Shakespeare was a man. And Wordsworth was a man. And Byron was a man. And Kipling."

"I mean real men," she said.

I always get confused when people use that qualifier: "real men." As opposed to what? False men?

Was my friend trying to imply that Shakespeare was really a woman? Or that Wordsworth was a chimpanzee? Or that Lord Byron had his poetry generated for him by a computer?

No. She was not questioning the facts that I presented. She was trying to let me know that these counterexamples were irrelevant. Those were all Englishmen that I cited. (I could have cited non-English poets, but I thought she might not have heard of those.) And they were all dead. And so they didn't count.

"No man I've ever met likes poetry," she explained.

"That's not true," I said. "You've met my father. And he likes poetry. He even writes it."

"Oh," she said. "Well, okay. But...that doesn't count."

Why It Doesn't Count

What I find puzzling is not my friend's initial hypothesis that men don't like poetry, but the fact that nothing I could say or do—no evidence that I could present—would ever change her mind.

Was it because she doubted the veracity of my claims? I don't think so. Was it because she didn't mean "all men" but "most men"? Or was it because she used some sort of algorithm for statistical analysis that required her to dump outliers? My friend was not sufficiently articulate to explain her reasoning, and I remain in the dark to this very day.

What I find puzzling is not my friend's initial hypothesis that men don't like poetry, but the fact that nothing I could say or do—no evidence that I could present—would ever change her mind.

Exceptions Disprove Rules

Another friend, one I met much later, is convinced that unless parents sit with their children and supervise all their homework, then the children are bound to fail. She thinks this is true if the child has fallen behind in any subject.

She gives this example to back up her rule: once, when she was small, she was very ill and missed several months of school. When she returned to school, she was behind on most of her subjects. Her mother sat with her while she did her homework and caught up. "If it weren't for my mother's help, I would have failed!"

"Well, you don't really know what would have happened if your mother hadn't helped you," I reply. "My own parents kept switching between Israel and the United States. I went to first and second grade in the U.S. Third and fourth grade in Israel. Fifth grade in the U.S. It wasn't just different schools. It was different languages. Different writing systems. Every time we switched, I was terribly behind. But I always caught up in a matter of months, and my parents did nothing to help me with that. It was sink or swim."

We've had this discussion many times. At this point, my friend crosses her arms, takes on a decisive tone that says the discussion is over, and says: "Well, you are the exception that proves the rule."

I don't care so much that she disagrees with me. What really bothers me is her notion that counterexamples have the effect of supporting a hypothesis. Exceptions don't prove rules. They disprove them.

A single counterexample overturns the inferences drawn from a whole mountain of supporting evidence.

My Own Half-Baked Theories

There is nothing wrong with noticing statistical correlations or formulating tentative rules that rely on them. When I began to practice law, I noticed something about people who, during the preliminary interview before I took their case, suddenly declared themselves to be Christians.

If it was a woman who was making this profession of faith, then the next thing that came out of her mouth was a confession that she had been unfaithful to her husband. But if it was a man who had just declared that he was a Christian, then more likely than not, his check was going to bounce.

This was not a prejudice against Christians per se. It was just an observation about people who felt the need to declare their faith in a lawyer's office when nobody had asked them anything about it.

The women with their adultery didn't bother me so much, but learning to predict when a check was going to bounce was a matter of my own survival. The first professed Christian client I met not only did not pay me my fee—he took me for the filing fee. That was money out of my pocket, and it really hurt.

The next time a man declared himself to be a Christian just before writing me a check, the hair on the back of my neck rose in a primitive warning, and so after he left my office, I immediately phoned the bank on which the check was drawn and asked whether there was sufficient cover. There was not.

For a time, this primitive rule of thumb worked for me, but eventually it turned out that while a profession of faith was a sufficient condition for insufficient cover, it was not a necessary condition. Other checks started to bounce, too, ones written by people who had not declared their faith.

So eventually I came to realize that bouncing checks were an equal opportunity hazard. I went back to treating everyone exactly the same. Only now, instead of trusting everybody, I mistrusted all equally. I presented each check for payment at the bank on which it was drawn.

Since there were many different banks, this was a costly, time-consuming process. It was one of the many reasons that I eventually decided not to practice law anymore.

The Clerks

Now, it was a well known fact that clients' checks often bounced. For this reason, the District Clerk's office only accepted lawyers' checks. But here is where another prejudice came into play. Apparently, in order to take advantage of this rule, it was not enough to be a lawyer. You had to look like one, too. What does a lawyer look like? Well, I'm not sure, but apparently not like me.

The first time a clerk rejected my check when I tried to file a divorce, I didn't quite understand what was happening. "We only accept lawyer's checks," he said, showing me the sign. "I am a lawyer." "You'll have to pay in cash or by money order." "But I am a lawyer." He didn't seem to hear me. So I stuck the check in front of his nose, and I pointed at the part that read: "Aya Katz, Attorney at Law."

At that point, he became aware of the fact that it was drawn on a lawyer's account, but he still didn't believe that I was that lawyer. It took another 10 minutes, and I had to produce my driver's license and bar card, something none of the other lawyers had been asked to do. Finally, convinced, he apologized: "Sorry. You don't look like a lawyer."

What does a lawyer look like? Was it the way I was dressed? I dressed in a three piece suit. Was it the fact I was a woman? There were many other women lawyers. Was it my manner? My speech? My height? My complexion? I never could figure it out.

But invariably, whenever a new clerk was hired, one who had never seen me before, I had to go through the same process of breaking through the inferences that were drawn based on my outward appearance.

The way to combat prejudice is to make people see that it doesn't matter how many times the inference has proved true. They still have to look at the particular instance before them, and if it doesn't fall into the rule they have formulated, then the rule is wrong.

How to Combat Prejudice

How can we combat prejudice? Can we do this by telling people to "be nice"? Do we teach them not to use racial slurs or to betray their deep-seated assumptions? No, that's just etiquette. That's a way for us all to pretend not to be prejudiced when we actually are.

Before we teach ethics, we have to teach logic. All the good intentions in the world will not help until people learn that a single counterexample overturns a rule. It is bad to pre-judge all members of group X, not because the statistical correlates that many of us have noticed aren't true. Most stereotypes have some statistical data to support them. That is how they arise.

The way to combat prejudice is to make people see that it doesn't matter how many times the inference has proved true. They still have to look at the particular instance before them, and if it doesn't fall into the rule they have formulated, then the rule is wrong.

Just one man poet disproves the rule about men disliking poetry. A single instance of a professed Christian whose check doesn't bounce overturns the rule that a profession of faith is the sign of a crook. A single instance of someone who is a lawyer but does not "look like one" should make a person alter the preconception of what lawyers look like.

It isn't about tolerance. It's about logic.

Keeping an Open Mind Is Impossible Without Logic

The same observations that I have made above about prejudice in the interaction between individuals are also relevant in scientific inquiry.

A single rare event overturns a rule that says that event is impossible. A single instance of a non-human using language should be enough to show that being human isn't a necessary precondition to language use. To agree on this, we don't have to like non-humans. We don't need to have experience with non-humans. All we have to do is master the very rudiments of logic.

I was recently taken to task when I suggested that it was important to teach children that there is a difference between being human (a biological fact) and being a person (an ethical concept.) Once the two definitions are in place, it is possible to talk about theoretical cases when humans aren't people, and when people aren't human.

I was told that because cases such as this are rare, children should not be exposed to the distinction. But it's the rare cases that lead to prejudice in the first place. Prejudice, more often than not, is based on misplaced faith in statistically motivated predictions.

If you let a child grow up without understanding the distinction between the average case and an absolute rule based on averages, he won't be able to recognize a counterexample to a rule when he is presented with it.

"Here is a man who likes poetry." "No, I mean 'real men.'" If you build not liking poetry into the definition of "man," then all the counterexamples will go into the file marked "unreal men." If you define human and person as synonymous, then all the people we encounter who are not human will fall into the category marked "not real people."

Keeping an open mind is impossible without logic.

I was recently accused of making a cryptic reference to racism when I observed an instance of prejudice. Nothing was further from my mind. Prejudice is not a form of racism. Racism is a form of prejudice. But it takes logic to see that.

© 2009 Aya Katz