Friday, June 20, 2008

Guest Blog: A comment on sweeping generalizations

In our society of political correctness, it has become all too common to err on the side of being polite. Certainly, interpersonal relationships and alcohol-facilitated conversations at parties have benefited from this additional measure of indoctrinated etiquette. Years ago, when newly introduced labels were put in use to describe someone, whether it was an African American who was once called black or a European-ancestry Caucasian who was once referred to simply as white, the new terms were clunky but proved to be somewhat useful.

In addition to this new way of reference, the practice of making sweeping, biased generalizations was already in sharp decline. For good reasons (the need to fight racism, sexism, antisemitism, antidisestablishmentarianism, etc.), these types of narrow-minded statements were increasingly met with disdain.

OK. Fine. That makes sense to me. But, I have a problem and here it is: my brain. My brain seems almost predisposed and uniquely structured to make rash, snap judgments based on sweeping generalizations. It is so ingrained that I believe it to be an inherent, primal quality. Instinctual, even. Heck, there is mounting scientific evidence that rash judgments, based on biases and not proven evidence, have contributed to the survival of our early ancestors.

So... how do I live in a society where my instincts run up against etiquette? Is it better to offer the world a polished, generic front to hide the sweeping generalizations that I make or to communicate them to shine a window on my imperfect humanity? And aside from etiquette, I believe that some sweeping generalizations are effective tools to use in life. Instead of trying to suppress this tendency to generalize, which is currently out of fashion in polite circles of conversation, my biased thoughts are used when I feel it's necessary.

Let me offer an example:

A few years from now, I will be married with children. I will want to get a babysitter so my sexy wife and I can hit the town. To find one, I will post an ad online. I will get a few responses and ultimately narrow the field down to two college students I have never met: a man and a woman. Both of them will be well referenced and will make an equally good impression on me. At this point, it might be hard for some people to make a decision.

But not for me. I will pick the female student.

Why? Because of my brain and this piece of information: in over 95% of people arrested for child sex crimes (pedophilia, child molestation, etc.), men are the perpetrators.

Now, it's true that since I don't really know anything about each of these hypothetical students, it is possible that this particular girl is a child molester. There is no way of knowing. But following the logic of wanting what's best for my children, I will pull in this generalization (that men are more likely to molest children) to make the best judgment I can.

And to anyone who actually endured this guest blog posting, I have this parting question:

Why is it not acceptable to admit or confess the biases and generalization our brains possess?

Yes, most of these thoughts breed intolerance and despicable behaviors. Yet, in our politeness and our measures not to offend, we lose touch with a valuable connection to our imperfect (but honest) humanity.

I think that's something that needs to be considered.

Sir Thaddeus McDougal
(AKA Cal, the college friend of Arminius)

Information derived from:
Vandiver and Walker. Female Sex Offenders: An overview and analysis of 40 case studies. Criminal Justice Review. Vol. 27, Number 2, page 284 (Autumn 2002).