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


Why might the identity of the person diminish your fear? Perhaps you make a snap judgment about his physical capacity to overpower you, such that you do not fear the elderly (although they too can carry guns). Perhaps you see a child, who is not mentally or physically mature enough to mug someone. Perhaps the person is wearing a professional uniform, which shows him to be employed. These are not stereotypes in the sense given above.

Other people will diminish your fear because they deviate from your mental paradigm of a mugger. Inevitably we keep these sorts of stock images in our heads. When you imagine a mugger, you probably see a young man rather than a woman or an old man, and you do not see him wearing a cowboy hat. You have probably acquired this image informally, from news reports and portrayals of muggers in popular culture, but it could be given a more plausible statistical defense than a general suspicion of young urban men could be. For while it is not true that most young urban men are muggers, it is true that most muggers are young urban men. Accordingly, if someone is a mugger, there is a high likelihood that he is a young urban man, although it is untrue that young urban men are likely to be muggers. Further, without knowing the actual likelihood that being a young urban man confers on someone’s being a mugger, you can safely assume that, among those who are muggers, you will not find old women in cowboy hats.

This last is the vital point, and it must be understood in connection with what we have said about the purely negative function of the individual’s identity. What establishes your fear is the dark alley itself: Being in it causes you to see everybody as a potential mugger. If you see an old woman in a cowboy hat, you rule her out, but a young urban man adds nothing to your fear — he simply fails to neutralize it. What you have directly stereotyped is muggers, not young urban men. Indirectly, you have stereotyped old women in cowboy hats as people who can be assumed not to be muggers, and young urban men as people about whom this assumption cannot be made. These indirect stereotypes are operative only in the special circumstance of the alley, where you are thinking first about muggers. They are not based on anyone’s likelihood of mugging you right now, but rather on whether someone might at any time be a mugger. And since you are ruling people out as possible muggers, the threshold of exclusion will be very high. In particular, you will not rule someone out purely on the basis of his race, since people of all races are represented among muggers, although not necessarily in proportion to their share of the population. (Many who discuss race in this context are in truth speaking imprecisely about a holistic assumption — based also on such factors as attire — about whether someone might hail from an inner-city cultural milieu. The contribution of race to this assumption can be understood as a historical contingency; the rest — like the old woman’s cowboy hat — has much more to do with sociocultural symbolism than with statistics; and to say that you fear a culture of urban violence is to reformulate the idea that you fear the dark alley itself, not individuals or races as such.) In all of these ways, the submerged rationale of dark-alley reactions differs from the habit of thought we dismissed as prejudiced a few paragraphs ago.

It is nonetheless a sideshow. A frisson is not a judgment, and it implies nothing about how you should decide to act (which is not to deny that it could motivate foolish decisions or arise from a preexisting prejudice). To spend so much time defending our initial frissons is bizarre. The thousand subtleties of the encounter that follows are vastly more important than whether someone “looks like a mugger,” and they cannot be studied from afar. How does the person approach? Does he leap from a hidden place? Are his hands visible and empty? Does he greet you and introduce himself? And cetera and cetera and cetera. What constitutes an appropriate response to these things has nothing to do with assumptions about types of people. It’s all right there between the two of you. So, for that matter, is the crucial stipulation that he approaches you — a stipulation that shows the inaptness of the dark-alley scenario as a point of comparison with the Zimmerman-Martin encounter or with President Obama’s experience of having been tailed in a department store.

In our application of statistical abstractions to what is immediate and personal, we have reached conclusions that are bluntly, blindly, stupidly categorical.

Perhaps this discussion has seemed hair-splitting and abstruse, but I think we have simply drawn out the implications of “Judge people as individuals” when this principle is not subjected to a trivializing interpretation. It is a principle in which I believe very strongly. It does not mean that we should ignore the social and cultural contexts in which people act and on which the meanings of their actions depend. To the contrary, it means we should pay very precise attention to these things, while remembering that each occasion of action — and each mind — is a type of its own.

*Note (3/29/2014): I have not used “likelihood” in its technical sense, according to which it denotes the probability of some observation given the truth of a hypothesis, not the probability of the truth of the hypothesis given the observation. Throughout the essay, “likelihood” may be read as a synonym of “probability.”

— Jason Lee Steorts is the managing editor of National Review.