14 March 2009

Type mismatch

Not being on Live Journal has its advantages; the vast mess that is RaceFail I have encountered extremely peripherally if at all.

In that peripheral awareness, the idea has come up a couple of times that "so and so is smart, of goodwill, and conscious; of course they're not racist", and, being me and possessed of the sense of rhetorical self-preservation of a stunned duckling, THIS I want to comment on.

Racism isn't a personal moral failing; it might involve personal moral failings (maintaining public racist views as a means of maintaining profits, for example, or for purposes of avoiding effort or social difficulty), but at root racism is worse; it's a general failure of world view. This is not something intelligence or a conscious approach to one's life are directly helpful with. OF COURSE that person of good will, general smarts, and conscious approach to their life can be racist; if they're using a world view based on types, they are more or less inherently condemned to be, because it's not possible to avoid being racist if you model the world using types.

It is, unfortunately, a very easy failure of world view; thinking by types is the historical case, and is correctly the case in the Newtonian physics and inorganic chemistry that so influenced Enlightenment thought. There really is an ideal type of an electron or a type of mineral crystal, about which valid generalizations can be made. That Enlightenment kick is not something the notion of types, pervasive in theology and philosophy for millennia, needed.

It is not correct to think in terms of types in any historical, and thus irreducible, science; knowing all chemistry is not sufficient to understand biology. Biology has to obey the rules of chemistry, but there is a real other layer of interactions there, one with an historical and contingent component, that you can't reduce to the chemical reactions.

People are biology. Reductive arguments of type, such as any use of race as a concept, are wrong not just by results but for being tried; it's completely illegitimate as a mechanism for getting an accurate result. (As a mechanism for social control or maintaining privilege, now, that's a different question. Works well for that. Hopefully you don't want to argue that those are legitimate goals.)

What we do have is populations; with lots of work, observation and very careful statistics, some statistical generalization about populations is possible, but there are two things that are really important to remember.

One is that a population is not a static thing; it changes. So even the very best effort will produce a statistical abstraction bound to a single specific time and place. Two is that applying statistics on a scale of individuals is futile. (Trivial example—the average adult mass of elephant seals falls between the range of adult female and adult male masses; juvenile males pass through it briefly. If you don't know that elephant seals are really pronouncedly sexually dimorphic, you might try to use that average adult mass for something, and come to grief. Never mind that it's generally statistically invalid and you don't necessarily know what population an individual actually belongs to...)

It's not enough to make the—very considerable and awkward; those practising the science of biology, where population thinking was introduced as a thing obviously more correct starting in about 1940, still have struggles with it—change from thinking in types to thinking in terms of populations, where every new individual is necessarily an unknown; it's necessary to get the notion of types out of rhetoric and planning.

That's one of those in principle easy things; substitute objectives and statistical models and expectations, and argue on that basis. It's also one of the better-but-harder things, though; someone who is losing that argument is always free to invoke types again. (This is a common pattern; I could wish it could be treated as being every bit as complete an admission of loss as ad hominem attacks in formal debate.)


It's about different axioms. Axioms of incompleteness (I never have all the data), axioms of the inapplicability of generalization (knowing something about a person doesn't mean I know anything about other individual people), axioms of incompetence (to a first approximation, everyone is better at everything than I am[1]), and axioms of insignificance (I'm not special. (Neither are you, but it's much much more important that I believe I'm not special than that I believe you're not.)).

Most importantly, it's about an axiom of positive expectation; of course any one individual person is of peaceable intent, is worthy of polite attention, and does not have to conduct themselves in an attitude of deference. (If you're expecting someone to defer, you're making negative assumptions about their worth. If they, or you, elect to defer, that's a situational judgement, but expecting deference is, at very very best, being oblivious to hierarchy, which is bad, and at worst, an actively evil demand for surrender.)

That's hard, and is probably never going to be fully achieved by anybody; it's really, really tough to treat the fourth member of an identifiable group, the first three members of which gifted you with trauma, as a their own distinct individual self. I certainly don't claim I can always do this, or even that I always remember to try.

Trying makes the trend better. Arguing about types never can, because types are wrong to start with; it's not an issue of attaching the wrong thing to the type, as if there's some way to get it right; it's just broken in its beginnings. Spreading that idea can start to provide a quantified, factual basis for dealing with policy issues as populations and people issues as individuals, with strong arguments for why you have to do it that way to get it right. (Individuals are always individuals, never representatives of a population in this model; in a types model that includes race, individuals are always a representative of their type, which is ... unhelpful.)

So, anyway; I think those axioms are important. I think doing the wretched awful slog to stop thinking in terms of types about anything to which types do not apply—and that's at least everything alive—is important. So is listening, and remembering that to a first approximation, everybody is smarter, more experienced, more knowledgeable, and more successful than you are about something, and you have no idea what that thing (or things, or host of things) might be.

[1] Yes, really; of course you're good at some things, but there are a whole lot of things and a whole lot of people, and the odds of being the very best at even one narrow specific thing are terrible. It's like noticing that to a first approximation, every species is extinct.


jennie said...

So is listening, and remembering that to a first approximation, everybody is smarter, more experienced, more knowledgeable, and more successful than you are about something, and you have no idea what that thing (or things, or host of things) might be.

This is something I tell my students, at least two or three times each time I teach my editing course, to try to forstall the almost inevitable tendency among young editors to think that almost everyone whose words they touch is an illiterate turnip who ought not to be permitted access to a keyboard.

Even the ones whose sentences lack verbs, whose ideas are muddy, and whose prose is leaden like a Roman pipe know something I don't, and are trying to communicate that. They deserve my respect for their efforts and for their knowledge, if not for their golden prose.

Graydon said...

I would say that's an entirely appropriate application; the types there are presumably the "smart people"/"stupid people" types, rather than anything to do with race, but (as I tried to say at some length :) the problem is the use of types to sort people, more than the specific types chosen.

But then again, I would say that. :)

Jonquil said...

"I am not racist", but I've said some pretty appallingly racist things, and been appropriately slapped down for them.

It's easy to retreat into "I am not a liar" when the point being made was "You just lied!" Character is not a unitary and consistent thing.

Graydon said...

Jonquil --

Thinking character was unitary and consistent would yet another way to fall into thinking by types, wouldn't it? (So and so is a Good Person being type thinking unalloyed.)

I'm feeling like I'm missing a step, or a reference, in understanding your comment as you intended it.

I really wasn't trying to address character issues; the character issues (to me) are just the springboard into "thinking by types means always getting it wrong; try something else?".

Jonquil said...

I think I was off on a slight tangent. What I was thinking and didn't effectively say is that "I'm not a racist" is an attempt to put yourself into the type of Good People, without examining the behavior.

Graydon said...

Ah, ok, yes, yes it is.

It can also be a complaint of the form "how dare you assign me to a type I don't agree with", which as a mechanism is a very powerful way to make a discussion of racism go utterly pear-shaped. (Which, it seems to me, might produce positive selection pressure for the tactic in contexts where the objective is to get the discussion to stop.)

(comments! woot!)

jennie said...

I think that "how dare you assign me a type to which I do not agree?" is indeed a very, very good way to derail a discussion, especially when "type to which I did not agree" = "EEEEEVIL Person" in many people's minds. If nothing else, we wind up talking about the meaning of the adjective, rather than the nature of the action, and next thing you know, it's gotten all doctrinal.