Norm normativity #1

Posted by – March 31, 2009

I am a big fan of accurate preconceptions, stereotypes and the social norms that make use of them. Example: merchants of skin care products in shopping centres don’t try to sell me anything because I’m a man. In other words, they make an assumption about me based on my sex. What are the overall effects of this prejudice? Let’s break it down by customer groups.

  1. Women who are interested in skin care products. They get approached and don’t mind it. The merchants make money out of these people.
  2. Women who aren’t interested in skin care products. They get approached but are bothered by it. The merchants are wasting their time here.
  3. Men who are interested in skin care products. They don’t get approached, but they can always go talk to the salespeople themselves so presumably they don’t mind. The merchants lose money by not targetting this group more aggressively.
  4. Men who aren’t interested in skin care products. They don’t get approached and are happy about it. The merchants save money by not targetting them.

The sizes of these groups and various other variables determine the overall profitability of the prejudice, but it’s probably positive since the skin care people do utilise it. So for them, there is a tangible benefit to having this prejudice. What about the customers? Trivially, if aggressive selling were banned altogether, nobody would be bothered by it. But barring that, this prejudice is also a net positive for the customers because it takes away the bother to group 4 and doesn’t provide bother to anyone extra.

There are those who would say of this and similar situations that the prejudice still shouldn’t exist because making assumptions based on gender is wrong. According to them it’s unfair that women who don’t want to be bothered can’t get the same deal men get. These people are essentially saying that they don’t care about efficiency for anyone else, but only about their needlessly hurt feelings. I can’t support such antisocial views.

Of course, this was a rather simple instance of a useful prejudice. An entry-level prejudice, if you like. If you still find yourself thinking “you shouldn’t be prejudiced”, there is probably no hope for you.

2 Comments on Norm normativity #1

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  1. Incestuous J says:

    Your analysis considers the sex of possible skin-caring people, but you switch to gender in your second last paragraph. Here targeting potential consumers on the basis of gender is a very useful strategy (ie. feminine women and effeminate men are likely to buy skin care products, while masculine men and women are less likely). The advertisers need to target femininity rather than females, which accounts for why they don’t reach all potential consumers in your analysis. This line of reasoning is boring or interesting depending on your view of gender: if you think gender already accounts for or results from various “sexual” genotypic features such as hormone levels or the sort of chimerism you mention elsewhere, then it begins to make sense to view sex as a continuum running parallel to gender.

    To throw in some continental philosophy: the problem is not that we have prejudices, which are undeniably useful; it’s that we are unwilling to put them at stake. We ought to regard all or nearly all of our generalizations as prejudicial so we remember that they are tentative. Then we can put them at stake and allow the world to have its say.


  2. sam says:

    @Incestuous J – Oops, switching to gender was an accident. I don’t normally distinguish between the two. It’s true that for advertisers it’s a good idea to target femininity, but this was about making a quick decision about whether to approach someone in a shopping centre. I suppose they might also target the most feminine males in that case, but I think it’s mostly a sex distinction.

    I don’t consider just prejudices to be tentative, but beliefs in general. Or not so much tentative as quantitative, ie. not absolute.