Stereotypes

A stereotype is a conceptual categorization often in reference to a group of people. Examples of stereotypes are: Jews are wealthier than white anglo-saxton protestants, blacks are more likely to be on welfare than whites, students in business are more conservative than students in the arts, men are stronger than women, homosexuals are effeminate etc.

The most important question regarding stereotypes is this: Is it more often the case that stereotypes reflect reality or more often the case that they affect reality?

Those who assume that reality is mostly socially constructed tend to reject the idea that stereotypes reflect reality. Those who believe in an objective reality that exists independently of beliefs and opinions are more likely to be suspicious of the effect of stereotypes on reality. I find myself in this latter group for the following reasons:

First, the human mind forms concepts based on differences and similarities between objects, events, and people. Our ancestors in our evolutionary past had a stake in forming correct concepts about their world. Those ancestors who took the time to see if every large feline they met was dangerous would not have survived long enough to pass on their genes while those who were able to make quick judgements in order to react would have more likely survived. In other words, concept formation is useful because it helps us understand the world our around us without having to engage in the impossible task of treating every experience as completely new and wholly uncertain. I suspect that most people would find this uncontroversial except when it comes to concept formation (i.e., stereotyping) about people. 

The second and more convincing reason is this: the claim that human concept formation is merely socially constructed is self-refuting. An argument is self-refuting when it must assume the thing it is arguing against. The act of stating that something is true or false, or valid or invalid necessarily assumes the validity of concept creation. Therefore, rejecting the idea that stereotypes (in the sense of conceptual categorizations) in general reflect reality is also self-refuting. I qualify the previous sense with "in general" because I am not saying that all stereotypes are accurate. (That would be a false stereotype).

People don't hold stereotypes forever. As people live and engage with reality, people are often quite willing to change adjust their stereotypes. For example, my grandfather was a LA Firefighter during the Watts riots of 1965. Because of his harrowing experiences, my grandfather had formed some discriminatory feelings against blacks. However he also had many close associations with black co-workers for whom he had no negative feelings at all.

According to the cognitive scientist, Steven Pinker in his Pulitzer finalist book The Blank Slate,

"People's stereotypes are consistent with the statistics, and in many cases their bias is to underestimate the real differences between sexes or ethnic groups. This does not mean that stereotyped traits are unchangeable, of course, or that people think they are unchangeable, only that people perceive the traits fairly accurately at the time. Moreover, even when people believe that ethnic groups have characteristic traits, they are never mindless stereotypers who literally believe that each and every member of the group possesses those traits. People may think that Germans are, on average, more efficient than non-Germans, but no one believes that every last German is more efficient than every non-German. And people have no trouble overriding a stereotype when they have good information about an individual. Contrary to a common accusation, teachers’ impressions of their individual pupils are not contaminated by their stereotypes of race, gender, or socioeconomic status. The teachers’ impressions accurately reflect the pupil's performance as measured by objective tests."

As stated previously, accepting the general validity of stereotypes does not mean that all stereotypes are accurate. False stereotypes are likely to persist if there is no consequence for them persisting. And of course, stereotypes do not justify racism or sexism, though it does justify discrimination which is not a categorical evil. Stereotypes are not "simply human inventions that have done more harm than good." In fact it would be harmful to deny the realities reflected by stereotypes if our goal is to elevate cultures that disproportionately tend toward socially harmful behavior.

Check the comments for a good treatment of stereotypes in Steven Pinker's book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature .

Nonsense about the senses

In my

last post

 I wrote about the philosophical error of subjectivism—the belief that we only have access to our own ideas and not to any objective reality. In this post I will address that error by arguing that our ideas can be objective.

The senses are faculties that we use to obtain information about the world. The eyes probably provide the most influential information about the world. The eyes are not a sensation. The eyes are an organ that we use to get sensations which lead to perceptions. According to the philosopher John Locke and subsequent philosophers, sensation and perception are both forms of ideas.

that-by-which
that-by-which

The grand mistake is to believe that ideas are that which we perceive. The truth is that ideas are that by which we perceive. The difference is one word “by”. What difference does this one word make? Think of the meaning of the sentence, “A brush is that which I am painting” and the sentence “A brush is that by which I am painting.” In the first sentence I am painting an image of the brush on the canvas. In the second sentence I am using the brush to do the painting. 

We are not aware of our ideas that are the result of our sensation and perception. We are only aware of the cause of our ideas. For example, when we use our eyes to look at bananas, we are not aware of the light that hits our retina. Nor are we aware of the physiochemical process by which our brains interpret that light. We are only aware of the cause of the perception— the bananas. We have direct access to the bananas which is the object of awareness.

In the picture below subjectivist philosophers would say that we do not have direct access to banana (A) we only have access to a "representation" of (A) expressed in figure (B). This is the major error.

perceiving-bananas
perceiving-bananas

Let me review the difference between objective and subjective. Objective is that which is the same for everyone. Subjective is that which is different for everyone. Everyone with senses has direct awareness of objects in reality. This means that everyone has access to objective reality. We experience actual reality. We do not experience anything through the senses unless it actually exists in reality.

An error about ideas

The significance of philosophers should not be underestimated. Their ideas can permeate society for generations. It is very important to closely scrutinize the most influential ideas of philosophers. As Aristotle said, "The least initial deviation from the truth is multiplied later a thousandfold." Enlightenment philosophers such as Descartes and John Locke were very influential. Many of these philosophers made a very crucial error concerning the relationship between the ideas and the intellect. Here I will briefly explain this error and point out the consequences of the error.

The error: Many philosophers believe that a person is only conscious of his own ideas. We are not aware of anyone else's ideas. We can only infer the ideas that other people have based on what they say and do. When we think of an apple, we have an idea of the apple in our mind. This idea may be a percept, a memory, a sensation, or a concept. One only perceives his own ideas.

The consequences of this error: 1. Objectivity is destroyed. "Objective" refers to that which is the same for everyone. "Subjective" refers to that which is different from one individual to another.  If we are only aware of our own ideas then ideas are merely subjective since we have no way of knowing if ideas are the same for everyone.

2. It leads to skepticism. If one only perceive his own ideas, then when one looks at an apple he/she is only aware of the representation of the apple in their mind. He/she is not actually aware of the apple in reality. One can guess that his/her idea of the apple is a good representation of the real apple, but he/she has no way of knowing. Why? because we can only tell if a representation is accurate by comparing the representation to the original. Since we have no access to the original we have know way of knowing whether our senses our trustworthy. Therefore we cannot directly apprehend what reality is like.

In my next post, I will show why these ideas about ideas are wrong.