Essentialism and Racism via Psychology Today

David Livingstone Smith, Ph.D., published an article today on Psychology Today's website called The Roots of Racism, which examines the idea of race, and the way it contributes to the idea of racism.  After clearly separating the biological definition of race from the "folk-conception," the popular understanding of the concept of race, he begins tearing it apart.

The idea that members of the same race resemble one another is very widespread and intuitively compelling.  The only problem with it is that it’s dead wrong.

Consider the fact that any two people resemble one another in all sorts of ways.  [... therefore], it’s vacuous to say that members of the same race resemble one another.  I think that what people who say that members of a race are similar to one another really have in mind is something like this: “Members of the same race resemble one another in more ways than members of different races do.” But this doesn’t work either.  Michelle Obama and the late Barry White are ostensibly members of the same race, but does Michelle really look more like Barry than she looks like, say, Ann Romney?

If your knee-jerk response is, “Of course she does!” I urge you to think again, because your response suggests that you are in the grip of a powerful illusion. Did you evaluate all of the observable features of Michelle, Barry, and Ann before you came to your conclusion?  Of course you didn’t. You considered only very few traits—primarily skin color.

He then points out that there's a popular conception, the idea of "Passing," which completely undermines the premise of visual resemblance.  "[E]ven virulent racists tacitly admit that a person’s race isn’t determined by how they look.  In the folk-conception, appearance is diagnostic of race, but it’s not identical to it."

Finally, he brings it around to the subject of Essentialism, which I've written about before.  The idea of race, he points out, is the idea that there are groups of people defined by some inherent trait, that they all share and that no other group of people possess.

[This idea] doesn’t entail anything of moral significance about either group. However, the idea that another group of people are not of our kind situates them as what social psychologists call an “out-group.”  When this happens, [... w]e develop an “us and them” mentality that leads us to consider these others as a homogeneous mass rather than a group of individuals, and to think them as our moral inferiors.

The combination of essentialist thinking with outgroup bias makes for a particularly nasty cocktail, for we not only think of the outgroup as having morally despicable characteristics, we also think of these characteristics as essential to them. This explains why racist beliefs are so difficult to dislodge. Even if a person’s behavior doesn’t conform to a negative racial stereotype, there is a tendency to assume that these dispicable traits are somehow latent in them, just waiting to be realized.

(Emphasis mine)

He concludes that those who oppose racism should concentrate their efforts on "undermining the very idea of race," which is the only point at which I disagree -- only because I don't think it's his place to dictate the course of progressive politics.

I do, however, agree that, as a cause all on its own, Essentialism needs to be combated.  It's a component in every awful way that humans interact with each other and the world, and we gain nothing by it that we would lose by understanding that it isn't true.

Cory Doctorow on Google's Algorithms (and Plato)

(via Boing Boing) Cory Doctorow just gave me everything I want to see in a headline:

Google admits that Plato's cave doesn't exist

The article is about a recent change in rhetoric by Google about their pagerank methodology.  As Doctorow puts it:

The pagerank algorithm isn't like an editor arguing aesthetics around a boardroom table as the issue is put to bed. The pagerank algorithm is a window on the wall of Plato's cave, whence the objective, empirical world of Relevance may be seen and retrieved.

That argument is a convenient one when the most contentious elements of your rankings are from people who want higher ranking. [...]

The problem with that argument is that maths is inherently more regulatable than speech. If the numbers say that item X must be ranked over item Y, a regulator may decide that a social problem can be solved by "hard-coding" page Y to have a higher ranking than X, regardless of its relevance. This isn't censorship – it's more like progressive taxation.

I like this because of what it says about Google's evolving role in the business of information curating.  I like the idea of Google taking more responsibility for the content people see via their search engine, and refusing to diminish that responsibility by being swayed by corporate interests.

It's also great to think that Google's filtering protocols are becoming more public knowledge -- they make content on the internet valuable, but they also carry significant risks, and it's important that we remain conscious of them and make proactive decisions about our relationship to the content we're exposed to.

But I love the way Doctorow frames the issue, because I love seeing any public stab against Platonism.

Platonism (summarized to emphasize the aspects I object to[1. I think this is valid, since I'm acknowledging I'm doing it, because philosophical discussions can get confusing quickly and I'd rather this not get derailed by nitpicking],) is the belief that there are fundamental, immutable truths called forms that literally exist, and can be perceived with sufficient training.  The highest of these forms is the form of the Good, which Platonism argues can be accessed by individuals after years and years of study, giving them straightforward, unambiguous correct answers to moral questions.

It'd be awesome if this were true, but it isn't -- and one of the many problems with Platonism is that it leads people who've spent a lot of time dwelling on a particular idea to ultimately come to believe that they've accessed ultimate truth, rather than that they've just spent too much time getting far too good at finding illusory patterns.  (There are other problems too.)

I've written before about how the organization of a story affects how it gets read, and this is the sort of use that I like to see, in that vein.  Stuff like the titles of opinion pieces flavor the conversation we have as a society about more than just the subject of the article.