Tuesday, March 14

All People Who Stereotype Are Dum

Those that say they know me will always be weary of making generalisations or stereotypical remarks while I'm within earshot. I think this is pretty unwarranted, 'cos I tend to make them quite often too (here and here) and I'm actually more bothered by the almost opposite act of pigeonholing ("hijabis shouldn't have fun" for example) But hey, that's a whole different blog.

However, I will contest any generalisation made flippantly and without context mainly to determine exactly what the person opposite is trying to say. So, if someone claims that people from a certain area tend to intermarry, I'll press them (possibly quite hard) to explain what they mean by and why they think that. To be clear it's not that I think they're incorrect or prejudiced, just that there's a lack of understanding (on either of our parts) that needs to be cleared up. Where does this misunderstanding come from though? I have some ideas.

Firstly, majority cases don't justify a generalisation. It's not correct to say that "men tend to gog at passing ladies" even if most of them actually do, since clearly there are a minority that don't.

Secondly, implications are not necessarily bidirectional (¬((A -> B) -> (B -> A)) for all you Logic fans out there). If, in a hypothetical area or island, "criminals are white" that doesn't imply that "white people are criminal".

Thirdly and most commonly, it's that these statements are describing a correlation, but are usually interpreted (and even offered) as a cause and effect relationship. Take the Pakistani kids in our education system who are not doing academically well: it may be totally accurate to claim that "Pakistani children tend to be less able than other kids", but the problem is that this is ambiguous (since it can be inferred that Pakistani kids are inherently not very bright) and b) not really doing the real issue any justice anyway (since it doesn't say anything about why this might be the case).

In this case it's a much better idea to either reform the statement ("Many children do badly at school. Of these, many are Pakistani."), qualify it ("a large number of Pakistani children perform less than average in their studies") or reason about it ("Many Pakistani children come from poor families. Children from poor families have less access to good education and therefore perform less well than those coming from more affluent backgrounds").

The differences between these and the original statement are subtle but they are there. And there are other strategies (some more and some less appropriate than these) to make what is to be said more acceptable and useful but it generally depends on what you want to say and to whom you are saying it to.

I've been repeatedly told that I'm a very literal person and that I shouldn't take what people say as what they really mean, but frankly I think that's a bit of a cop out. Yes, there are cases when generalisations are handy, both trivial (eg for humour) and genuine (eg for conciseness), but they become dangerous when they're said unchecked and without qualification though. And as a Muslim often at the receiving end of generalisations I think it's important for me to suggest when this might be the case.