Norm normativity #2

Posted by – May 10, 2009

-a prejudice is a particular kind of belief
-some prejudices are valuable to have
-beliefs have variable accuracy and effects

Humans have a tendency to develop prejudices that are especially valuable. People who fail to develop such prejudices are constantly at greater risk from various threats and fail to identify good opportunities.

The most common prejudices about people concern age and gender. Everyone cares about them because those two things typically tell you a lot about a person. If you’re walking down the street alone at night it’s a very different sensation to notice you’re being followed by a 25-year old man than a 10-year old girl (or a 70-year old woman).

How should we evaluate these prejudices about age and gender? To people who have them they are useful. It makes you safer to be a little wary of people you don’t know who are in the age/gender group that commits almost all of the violent crime in our society (of course it’s even better to tune your prejudices more finely; eg. muscularity, drunkedness, tattoos and loudness adjust the threat estimation up). This has the consequence that people in the group in question are seen as threatening even if they’re really no more of a threat than the average person. Nevertheless, most people would probably say we’re better off with the prejudice than without it.

On the opportunity side, most businesses and individuals assume in their dealings that everyone is heterosexual. As opposed to the previous example, this prejudice has a name: heteronormativity. Why do businesses do this? Instead of printing an ad saying “buy your wife this necklace and she will have more sex with you” they could cover other possibilities too, like women who want to extract sex from men by buying them stuff, gay couples and people who like to buy nice things for themselves. They don’t do those things because they think they’re making more money by doing what they’re doing now.

Their underlying assumptions are that most people are heterosexual and that men mostly buy things for women instead of the other way around. As far as I can tell, those assumptions are actually true. This and other practices have the consequence that non-heterosexuals are made to feel weird, and it’s very unpleasant to feel that your sexuality is weird. That’s why some people think this prejudice is wrong and that you shouldn’t make assumptions about anyone’s sexuality. I sympathise with this and try to avoid making gay people feel weird (then again, I feel pretty weird myself), but I can’t make myself not know that nine out of ten people are heterosexual. Or if I can, I don’t really want to. I don’t want to make my map any worse. If I were in the jewellery business I would have to balance the goal of making money with the goal of not making people feel excluded.

In the previous cases prejudice is generally considered to be acceptable, but there are others in which it isn’t. For example, I’m pretty sure racial prejudice is a de facto part of being streetwise in many parts of the world. In the United States, black people commit more violent crime than white people (in the case of homicides by a factor of about six). That is a statistical fact that doesn’t provide any explanations as to why this should be so, but it’s true enough to make most people racists in the sense the word is widely used today. Whether they want to or not, people can’t get this out of their minds and will often react accordingly even if they intellectually believe they shouldn’t be racist. Unlike with sex/age/sexuality, many people believe it’s wrong to even know (or express) this fact because it stigmatises blacks and perpetuates the situation.

I agree that it’s not desirable to stigmatise innocent black people, just like it’s not desirable to stigmatise innocent young males in general. In general the rational thing is to judge people as individuals when you get to know them as individuals. But I don’t make it my goal not to know these things, nor do I make an effort to approach a rowdy gang of Somali youths as if it weren’t a rowdy gang of Somali youths. I don’t believe that would be so much “fighting racism” as “fighting reality”.

3 Comments on Norm normativity #2

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  1. G says:

    You forget an important part of the equation when you state that black people commit more violent crime than white people in the United States. It is that most of the crime is within the black community. According to this logic, when you are walking down the street in Washington, DC, say, what matters is what your own demographic is in terms of the risk of being assaulted.

    In 2008 in Baton Rouge, LA, 89 per cent of murder victims were black and 83 per cent male. Of those arrested for homicide, 92 per cent were black and 87 per cent male.

    Also: does it matter what nationality the rowdy gang of youths is? To me personally it makes no difference whether they are Somali, English, Argentinian, Russian, Japanese or Finnish. A rowdy gang of youths is an intimidating concept just by itself to me.


  2. sam says:

    It’s true that most US crime happens “within races”, presumably because the whole society is rather segregated along those lines. Also, the majority of crime occurs between acquaintances in the underclass, not against random people walking on the street. This is a consequence of the racism (and classism, and $NORMism) I was talking about; people who aren’t born into those circumstances don’t often get involved in the lives of the underclass, violence being one big reason why.

    Finland unlike the US doesn’t keep crime statistics by race, but foreign-born (like my dad) people are overrepresented by factors of about two in homicides to a factor of about five in rapes. In Finland’s Somalia-born population about one in three people were suspected of a crime in 2005. Of course in a practical situation I’d fine-tune my behaviour to the type of rowdiness, but I’d say most of the Somali kids hanging around the railway station look vaguely scary to me. I don’t recall seeing many rowdy Japanese gangs.


  3. sam says:

    Then again, I’m under the impression that Somalis in Finland tend to be pretty young and male (like me), which is probably skewing both the crime statistics and threat perception in their direction somewhat.