Total Pageviews

Sunday, December 11, 2011

With All Due Disrespect

This post probably should have been written much earlier, but here it goes.

Generally speaking, black people just aren’t as intelligent as white people, and women are way too emotional for the public sphere.

Now before you go all flame war on me, I’m not actually supporting either of those claims.  I’m just using them as an example.  But if I’d told you that beforehand it would have ruined the effect.  So now that you’ve had the full effect, was your gut reaction to cry foul?  If so, ask yourself why you have that urge.  What is it about the statements that makes you want to call me out?

Presumably, it’s because there’s something wrong about making a statement like that.  But there are two major ways in which something can feel wrong.  The first is a sense of moral wrongness, which is often associated with unfairness.  One reason people don’t like the claims “black people aren’t as intelligent as white people” and “women are way too emotional for the public sphere” is because they claim something unfair.  Another reason is that they can come across as insulting, calling black people stupid or calling women overemotional.   Regardless of the cause of the distaste, many people believe that making statements like these is morally wrong, and this gives them an urge to fiercely denounce such statements.

But the second kind of wrong is that of factual incorrectness.  And here’s where the theme of this post comes in.  The fact that something is unpalatable doesn’t mean it’s false.  Whether or not black people really do tend to have lower intelligence than white people is completely independent of whether or not such a discrepancy is fair, just like the fact that calling women overemotional is offensive doesn’t impact any biological factor contributing to their abilities in the public sphere.  Maybe these things would be horribly unfair if they were true, but that doesn’t make them not true.

Which leads us to an interesting question.  What if they were true?

When someone says that black people are generally less intelligent, most of us believe that they are both morally and factually wrong.  But what if they were factually correct?  What if we investigated and ended up corroborating the claim?  For instance, suppose we administered IQ tests and found that black people tended to score significantly lower than white people?  And just to address the preparation I presented last week, let’s blow this out of proportion.  Let’s suppose, for the sake of illustration, that a survey showed that out of 500 black participants and 500 white participants, the top 400 scores came from the white participants.  And let’s go even further and say that this discrepancy was still present even after accounting for the effects of socio-economic differences.

If such a study were performed, and such results obtained, would it still be wrong to say that black people just aren’t as intelligent as white people?  If emotions really did get in the way of women’s attempts to run companies, and this was demonstrated by repeated studies, would it still be wrong to accurately identify that cause?

If you’re too focused on rejecting a claim based on its offensiveness, then you won’t be able to honestly asses its truthfulness.  If someone tells you that women are so emotional that few are capable of making good CEOs, and you respond by saying “Don’t say that, it’s offensive,” then you’ve completely ignored the question of factual accuracy.  And if the statement is true, then while most people are busy assuming that men and women ought to have similar CEO potential, women everywhere will continue to struggle to meet unreasonable standards, and any failure will be chalked up to laziness, poor education, discrimination, or any number of things other than simple biology.

And if a society in such a world did somehow manage to equalize the number of successful male and female CEOs, such a feat would not, as most would be inclined to believe, indicate the elimination of sexism.  Rather, it would suggest a large amount of discrimination against men.  Yet anyone who simply assumes equality from the outset will have a difficult time realizing this fact.

People have a tendency to reject a lot of uncomfortable claims on the basis of those claims being “morally wrong.”  This is one of the reasons people get so up in arms over criticism of religion, especially people whose religious tenets include “it is immoral to question these tenets.”  Before they get the chance to analyze the factual merits of the competition, they block out the criticism by being offended.  They say “respect my beliefs” before they say “you’re factually incorrect.”  Just like many people would respond to this post’s first statement by saying “that’s offensive” before saying “that isn’t true.”

And when you respond in this manner to something that is true, then you’ll be missing out.

I’m going to ask some thorny questions on this blog, not all of which will be about discrimination or religion.  But don’t fall into the common trap of conflating your emotional reaction towards a claim with its factual accuracy.  Avoid the temptation to reject an idea just because it upsets you.  Don’t try to doge the issue by demanding “respect” for your beliefs, or complaining about some statement being offensive.  If you don’t like a claim, and that claim is false, then showing the falseness is a much better defense than crying “disrespect.”  But if you don’t like a claim, and that claim is true, then it is probably something you need to hear.

1 comment:

  1. Good points.

    Funny enough, my first reaction to your statements was, "Is that factually true? Nope, pretty sure it isn't. I wonder if he really believes that." I guess spending so much time questioning my own beliefs and those of others has hammered the 'that's offensive!' reaction down to imperceptible levels. ;-)