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Symbols, Statistics, and Stereotypes
Yes, you should judge people as individuals.


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In his elegant meditation on stereotyping, Theodore Dalrymple gives one example that seems clearly not to fit with the others: belief that the Antarctic tends to be cold. This is a generalization fully reducible to observation and statistics. The other examples are symbols, which enable you to intuit something about another mind that cannot be observed (the thought it wishes to express, the reference it wishes to make, the attitude it wishes to convey) and that you would not come to understand through statistical methods or define in statistical terms.

Some of the symbols Mr. Dalrymple mentions have explicit meanings, such as the India-ink tattoo by which British youths convey the message that they have been to reformatory, while others are styles of grooming and attire that have a cultural or ideological significance. So there are two distinctions here: a main distinction between symbols and generalizations from experience, and a secondary distinction between explicit meaning and sociocultural connotation.

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It would be useful to identify what it is that people object to in what are called “stereotypes.” I think it’s roughly this: the making of assumptions or judgments about someone’s mind or character on the basis of anything other than his own expressions of them. No one detects prejudice in the observation that a person of African descent is more likely than one of European descent to have sickle-cell anemia, but when it comes to our minds, we want to be seen — or at least we think we want to be seen — as individuals.

For this reason, the main distinction is important. Symbols cannot exist absent a social and cultural background, but understanding their meanings does not depend on comparing any occasion of use with any other. If the symbol is ambiguous, the ambiguity on one occasion of use could not be resolved by observing another occasion (although the possibility of ambiguity could be seen by observing various cases). And all of this is true even when a symbol establishes group membership. If someone is wearing a military uniform, you know that he has identified himself with a well-defined group and embraced its ethic and ethos, but you are making that judgment on the basis of something that he individually has done to communicate a meaning.

Meaning is murky in cases that fall on the “sociocultural” side of the secondary distinction. So I must disagree with passages such as this: “The fashion among young males for low-slung trousers . . . originated as a symbolic identification with prisoners, who have their belts removed from them on arrival in prison. . . . Those who see, or rather intuit, in this fashion an insolent defiance, a deliberate rejection of what would once have been called respectability, are surely right to do so even if they do not know the origin of the fashion. The same is true, incidentally, of those who obey the fashion; they may not know its origin, but they are fully aware of the effect it is likely to have on those whom they wish to offend.”

Of course it is likely to have that effect on those who believe, a priori, that anyone who obeys the fashion wishes to offend them. But what reason have they to believe this? Whence this certainty? What justifies the “surely” and “fully aware”? Many baggy-panted individuals have presumably adopted the style, which is now quite common, without giving it a moment’s thought. Moreover, unlike that of a military uniform, the meaning of baggy pants was not fully determinate even in origin: It could equally well have expressed an endorsement of criminality or a protest of perceived systemic injustice. Which meaning someone had in mind would certainly have been relevant to your assessment of him, and today he may mean nothing at all. Ideologically or culturally charged styles tend to lose their meaning with time, until they become, simply, styles. To assume that anyone who adopts the style does so for the same reason as those who inaugurated it is indeed to make an assumption about his mind on the basis of something other than his own expression of it. There is no clear line here, but there is a clear general principle: The less definite a symbol’s meaning, the more hesitant we should be to draw conclusions on its basis, and the more skeptical we should be of our starting assumptions.


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