People are complicated and hard to get to know in a short amount of time. But sometimes you need to make quick a judgement without the time to really get to know someone. So people often use simple heuristics based on what they can see. Things like clothing, race, accent, etc.
This kinda works, because in the aggregate there are statistical difference between groups. If you pick a random man from the population, statistically he’s likely to be taller than a random woman. There are a lot of these sorts of statistical correlations, the most controversial of which deal with intelligence and criminality, which I won’t get into because you already know them.
The most important thing about statistical correlations is that they are SUPER fuzzy. A few percentage aggregate difference between groups that measure in the hundreds of millions, or possibly billions, leaves for astounding variance between individuals. I’m tall-ish for a man, and I’ve met a number of women taller than I am. The tremendous variance between individuals makes it unfair for someone to be pre-judged based on a group they fall in. It is claimed that “Research in human genetics has highlighted that there is more genetic variation within than between human groups, where those groups are defined in terms of linguistic, geographic, and cultural boundaries.” Statement 2. Guiding principles on using racial categories in human genetics (Soo-Jin Lee et al., 2008)
So we’re left in a tough dilemma — the information available to us is crappy and unfair to any given individual. But it’s based on aggregate statistics, and when that is the ONLY information someone has to go on, they will go on that, because even unfair data is often better than nothing at all. IE: if you want to optimize your group for tallness, you’re better off rejecting all female applicants (if the only info you have on applicants is their sex), despite the fact that a mixed group picking from the tallest candidates from both sexes would be taller.
But you know what groups actually have a very low degree of variance within them? Families. Specifically, children to their parents.
When I was a wee one, I believed strongly in blank-slate-ism. Almost everything was Nurture, in my opinion. To the point that I argued very strongly on Xena forums that it was evil for Xena to try to murder the infant child of Satan, because if it was raised by Gabrielle it could have totally grown up into a kind, caring, productive member of ancient Greek society. I still do think that it was probably wrong for Xena to have attempted that particular bit of child-killing, but I’m now far more sympathetic to the side of “Look, her dad is literally the embodiment of evil.” Turns out genes really do make a lot of difference, and everything is at least partially heritable.
This has been floating around in my head for a while, but I was recently reminded to post about it due to someone saying:
if you have a kid with some kind of horrifying predatory criminal, and now your kid is a horrifying predatory criminal, and you have no idea how this happened because the father left before he was even born and your new husband is a great guy and you’ve both always done your best to raise your kid well and give him a good home, your kid’s psychiatrist will listen empathetically to your story, and then empathetically give you a copy of The Nurture Assumption.
Also, “But we’re his foster parents! And he was taken away from his biological parents at age two weeks old! And we’ve given him the best home and every advantage you could imagine!” Lady, as soon as my next bulk shipment of The Nurture Assumption copies come in, boy do I have a book for you!
If someone wanted to eliminate all practical reasons for discrimination in situations where there’s enough time to run a quick database look-up on someone, I think by far the best way to do so would be to implement a strong genealogical record and make it entirely legal to look people up at will and base decisions on the results. Now the black kid with a teacher mother and an electrician father has a FAR better chance on his job application than the white kid with a mom in-and-out of rehab, and a dad who’s been in jail twice for assault.
Yes, it’s STILL unfair. Popular fiction would be full of stories of the kid who’s parents are horrifying predatory criminals, but the kid is kind and gentle and doing his best to cure cancer or break the lightspeed limit, and he’s almost there, but The Man is judging him based on a past that he had no hand in creating and couldn’t control. But it would be FAR MORE fair than what we have right now, because the correlation between parent-child is far stronger than within-racial/religious/sex/etc-group. It would help decision makers as well as applicants in almost all cases.
There would be ways for people to get around the stigma of awful parents, just like there are ways to get around the stigma of being poor, or female, or the wrong race or religion nowadays. But instead of every single member of groups that measure in the billions being forced to use these techniques for proving themselves, the numbers would be restricted to those who have problematic parents. Which I (naively?) assume is much lower.
I have this silly dream that it would drastically reduce the prevalence of racial/etc stereotypes if this sort of thing was widespread. People would grow used to accepting that there’s no real difference between races, or religions, at all. The difference is between parents, and families. This has the benefit of being closer to the the truth than the current status-quo, even if it isn’t the actual truth. And it’s much harder to paint an entire country/race as subhuman monsters that your nation needs to subjugate in a Just War if no one believes those are a natural grouping we can generalize about, and instead asks “Look, how many of the families in that country are known to be horrifying predatory criminals? And is there some way we can target just them, rather than wiping out the whole nation?”
I’m looking forward to a future where “Who are your parents?” is consider due-diligence rather than rude.