About Me

My photo
Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

More elevator etiquette at In Living Color

In the wake of the subject that we don't talk about here, Jean Kazez has written posts on another couple of elevator incidents. I actually think these may be of more intrinsic interest than the more famous one. In any event, they're interesting in their own right.

What do you think of this and this? Did the people who made stereotyped assumptions in these cases (1) do nothing wrong, (2) do something let's say sub-optimal (or maybe let's say something that failed to include the conduct that would have been praiseworthy), (3) do something definitely but only slightly wrong, or (4) do something seriously wrong... ? You may give different answers in the two cases.

If something is wrong in these cases, are we seeing sexism and racism respectively? Or is it something else? If it is sexism and racism, what are the relevant concepts of sexism and racism here?

My first thought is that there actually is something wrong in each case, but I'm not so sure that it's sexism/racism ... or if it is then we need to employ fairly broad conceptions of what sexism and racism are. But there certainly is some stereotyping going. Does it perhaps tend to reproduce sexism and racism even if not motivated by these things. I assume that you can take actions that tend to reproduce sexism (for example) without being motivated by sexism - perhaps as a result of ignorance or some other epistemic or moral defect. We may live in a world where the social structures and other circumstances are such that more is required of us (by standards that we might ourselves rationally accept) than merely not being motivated by sexism or racism.

Or maybe not - far be it from me to pre-empt what you might think. Let's see if we can get some, ahem, nuanced discussion.


Mummers said...

It just seems to me that a number of people haven't got enough real problems and are intent on creating some for themselves and others. Everything they say screams, "Everything is about me me me me". Narcissists of the highest order. Silly arses, as my old Maths teacher would often say.

Cary Lenehan said...

First case: definite sexist assumption. The young man (and give him the excuse of age and inexperience) went for stereotypes (white-haired make philosopher v pregnant woman). Awkward for the woman to say anything, but perhaps she should say hello to them both before or after a panel.

The mother was also stereotyped - or perhaps profiled due to circumstances might be more accurate. Regardless of what they thought, the people around her were rude to do say anything. It would perhaps be worthwhile for her to say something about assumptions while in the elevator or as a leaving comment.

James Sweet said...

I think you're about right that neither action was probably motivated by conscious sexism or racism -- but of course that is what is so pernicious about institutionalized biases, is that we often don't even realize when we are engaging in these sorts of prejudices.

Let me give an example: I accidentally did something very rudely and (apparently) sexist the other day, but I didn't have the slightest sexist intention, not even subconciously. My wife was hosting a group to talk about their childbirth experiences at our house. I was busy doing something else, but a couple came to the door and I was closest so I answered the door. They were strangers to us, but I confirmed they were in the right place. The guy introduced himself, so I shook his hand and said my name, but I really had no interest in talking to either of them (I was busy!), so as soon as I had done that, I pointed them to the family room and said, "They're in there."

After a brief awkward pause, the woman introduced herself and shook my hand. Oh crap, don't I look like a douche... It was as if I had treated her as a non-person. But you see, I was sort of attempting to ignore both of them, and the guy just got in the introduction and handshake before I could excuse myself. heh... d'oh... I felt awful though.

I guess that's slightly different, but my point is how the underlying motivations don't necessarily have anything to do with the outward effect. But the outward effect does matter, so both of the situations described by Kazez are pretty uncool. The only solution is deliberate consciousness-raising.

Mummers said...

Or, alternatively, they could grow up.

Russell Blackford said...

I certainly think that both people were stereotyped ... or more precisely the white-haired male philosopher was stereotyped and the younger pregnant woman was seen as not meeting the stereotype, while in the second case the black woman was definitely stereotyped.

I think you could probably have these stereotypes in your head without being motivated by sexism or racism - you might be motivated by a statistical fact about what people in certain roles typically look like. Those facts might be caused, in part, by a history of sexism or racism, but they are, ex hypothesi, still facts. So your stereotypes might, in these cases, match up with genuine information that you have (at least in some rough or inchoate form) rather than, say, your assumptions about what people of a certain sex or race are "fit for" or capable of doing.

But applying them in a particular case may give the wrong result and may also be harmful. Do you have a duty (judged against deeper standard that you yourself should accept given your own values, etc.) to take some steps to avoid acting on these stereotypes even if they have some statistical validity?

I'm retracing some of the discussion at In Living Color, not claiming at this stage to be adding anything original.

Russell Blackford said...

Well, in your example there was still not even any unconscious sexism - at least on your account, which I'm happy to believe. But it still produced a sub-optimal result.

Sure, Mummers, these are not cases where great harm is done. Still, in the two elevator cases people acted on assumptions that they weren't really entitled to act on. Statistically they were, perhaps, reasonable hypotheses. That's why they could, perhaps, be held by the people concerned without having conscious or even necessarily subconscious sexist/racist beliefs such as "women are inferior to men" or "women are incapable of being philosophers". But hasn't acting on these hypotheses as if they were confirmed led to error and to at least sub-optimal outcomes.

Again, maybe no big deal in either case, but I'm not so sure that we should just tell the two people who were made upset to just grow up. If they made a huge fuss or accused the people with the stereotypes of outright sexism/racism it might be different. Or if someone angrily accused you of those things it might be different.

Russell Blackford said...

Sorry, first para of previous comment was for James.

Lee said...

I find myself wary about attributing any instance of human behavior to one motivating factor. I think there were probably many unconscious barriers between a young man addressing an obviously spoken-for female in a tightly enclosed space, barriers that did not exist in the case of the older gent. To say "definite sexist assumption" is to make a bewilderingly specific assumption while implicitly ruling out any other factors.

The second case is based on a statistically supported, yet ultimately unfounded, assumption, making the rude discussions inappropriate. I don't think "stereotypical" fits this case, but I could be wrong.


Eamon Knight said...

This is why I never talk to people in elevators. 'Cuz....damn: you never know what a minefield you might be wading into.

Mummers said...

After a lifetime of observing increasingly irrational actions by homo sapiens, one starts to lose the will to care about their trumped-up trivial tripe. Silly arses all round, I say.

James Sweet said...

Re: The sometimes-factualness of stereotypes... I read somewhere (I want to say The Blank Slate by Stephen Pinker?) that there was some research suggesting that 1) stereotypes tend to be rooted in real trends, and 2) they can even help people to arrive more rapidly at accurate decisions... with the important caveat that this only applies when the stereotyping was not being applied to a distrusted/maligned group. In those cases, stereotypes tended not to conform to reality, and led to bad decision-making.

Take this with a grain of salt, since it is only a half-remembered factoid at this point... but if I'm getting it at least close, I think it has some bearing on the question you posed, Russell:

Do you have a duty (judged against deeper standard that you yourself should accept given your own values, etc.) to take some steps to avoid acting on these stereotypes even if they have some statistical validity?

If the group we are talking about is one that has been historically maligned or distrusted -- and for our culture, that would definitely apply to women and brown-skinned people -- then yes, absolutely you have a duty to try and avoid acting on those stereotypes regardless of statistical validity, because your perception of their statistical validity is highly likely to be distorted. If the group in question is not so maligned, then there is not so much of a duty, because our intuitions about the statistical validity of the stereotype tends to be roughly correct.

Russell Blackford said...

To clarify, the stereotyping that I see is (1) a stereotype of what an academic philosopher looks like and (2) what a nanny or maid looks like. In each case, what they look like in a certain context. Those stereotypes may have effects on people of certain races/sexes, so what James said may have some application, but I don't claim we are seeing stereotypes directly about people of those sexes and races. Certainly I see no reason to think anyone had a stereotype such as "pregnant women are stupid" or "black women lack ambition". The stereotypes about philosophers and maids/nannies may well be statistically valid in the situations described. And yet, if they are uncritically applied rather than just entertained provisionally they can have these effects.

I think this is interesting because it seems to me to show how people who are not sexist or racist in any way that I think is meaningful can still act sub-optimally within social situations that have been shaped by a history of sexism or racism. I think it's worth thinking about this rather than calling individuals sexist or racist at the drop of a hat.

Some more epistemic modesty would have helped them in those situations. But I also think Mummers has a point: in such situations you may end up doing something sub-optimal no matter how careful you are. It may be more the situation's fault (with all the history that led to it) than your fault.

Which is not a reason not to be careful. But perhaps it's a reason not to beat yourself up too much if you make a mistake, or to be too harsh in critising individuals.

March Hare said...

Scenario 1 - how many people are in the hotel, how many at the conference. If the chances of a a-stereotypical looking philosopher being in the lift with you is slight then it is reasonable not to ask. Besides, she didn't initiate conversation and may not wish to be, as she may see it, cornered in a confined space.

Scenario 2 - she doesn't look like the kid's mother! Therefore our brains immediately try to place her in a role that is reasonable for you to have 'possession' of the child: kidnapper; aunt; teacher; nurse; firefighter; maid; nanny? Using all available in this situation it appears that a reasonable expectation is nanny, closely followed by mother.

While sexism and racism are very real problems in our society they are not helped by people crying wolf as both these scenarios quite clearly are. The kind of ridiculous blindness to available evidence being sought here would lead us to ask men carrying children if they were the mother, asking women in nurses' uniforms in hospitals if they were there to visit a sick relative etc. etc.

I am discombobulated that sensible people are taking these scenarios as actual instances of very serious societal problems. I am becoming more and more understanding of Richard Dawkins' response as these scenarios become more and more contrived and ridiculous.

Mummers said...

Not being a trained philosopher, I am free to say it like it is. I find this to be...refreshing.

Svlad Cjelli said...

You're edging close to saying one thing and doing another.
First case is the complete package. I think sexism is too simple, much like calling a car "wheels". Elder, white-haired male? I don't know if he was wearing tweed and glasses, on the other hand.
Maybe the pregnancy had something to do with it, too. I imagine that would do something, but I don't know in what direction.
He apparently didn't have a blanket aversion to elevator conversation, though.

Second case does look like the old hangup about mexicans in the States.

Dave Ricks said...

In Elevator Deux, suppose hypothetically the two guys were gay, and they spotted each other on gaydar, and their exchange meant, "Smithers, I like the cut of your jib." In that scenario, their ignoring Evelyn Brister would have nothing to do with her (and her being a woman, a philosopher, her pregnancy, her clothing, and her hair).

Now independent of whether gaydar was the case, we can apply the standards of Jean Kazez here to judge Brister and Kazez are "rude" to make their "stereotypical" assumptions that neglect the gaydar hypothesis.

I don't know how the rest of you meta-your-ethics, but Brister et al. remind me of religions that set impossible requirements of behavior and thought.