During the winter of 1997, I first set foot upon American soil. If you asked me to narrate such an occurrence as dramatically as possible, I would perhaps describe my small foot sinking into that loamy soil, moistened both by the humid air of the near-tropics and by the blood and tears of slaves hundreds of years ago. For I was in Alabama – perhaps not Birmingham, as I eventually would end up, but maybe somewhere else in the outskirts, a place that my memory has long displaced with the weighty whispers of extinct organisms, draped only with their exquisite Latin overcoats. But at least I know that back then, soil was just soil, I spoke better Chinese than I do now, and probably was far more intelligent to boot. And people were just people.
As far as foreign lands go, it was a foreign land like any other. At least that was the conclusion I made when I was huddled in the claustrophobia-inducing box of a restroom in the first American school I ever attended, surrounded by a school of entirely African-American students (minus one white kid). Naturally, there was quite the chorus of chinging and chonging, but there were also kind individuals. We could make all sorts of classifications and demarcations, some on the basis of morphological traits, others on the basis of behavioral ones; but back then, we all fell asleep to Clair de lune during naptime, and that was enough.
The concepts of sameness, of identity, and ultimately, of ingroups and outgroups, is something that should not be foreign to any of us. Not as students, not as teachers. Not as metaphysicists, not as patty-flippers at the local McDonalds. We classify, and we are classified. Far from a heretical statement, such an assertion should not offend any sensibilities. Rather, we should be proud that the human thought process (and languages that accompany) provide us with the schematic framework, the gestalt, to compartmentalize the absurd amount of information received from the environment into nice, tidy, bite-sized packages. There is no strict need to understand and appreciate every individual entity for its own sake, not only because such a process is extremely taxing and burdensome, but also because there is a certain sense of immediacy within the teleology of classification at least at the most fundamental level. What is this sense of immediacy, and why is it important?
To explore this issue, I once again offer the assumption that classification serves a functional purpose in reducing a wide range of stimuli into smaller components that can be manipulated. From this, it follows that classification not only serves important psychological functions of reduction and arrangement, but also allows for synthesis and induction. To say that x, y, and z are elements of domain D is to say that D quantifies over objects x, y, and z such that they share some property Dx = Dy = Dz. A secondary assumption is that for any x, for two properties D and F, if there exists an x such that Dx does not equal Fx, the two properties can be said to be disjunctive. In more relevant terms, distinct classifications may or may not overlap, and provided that such classifications do not completely overlap, can be said to be different in an actual sense. I feel like this assumption hews closely to the natural intuition that differences between groups are actual – that is, something that is green is need not be simultaneously green and red. With sufficiently robust quantification, it is possible to construct sets such that there is no overlap between green and red.
I have little empirical evidence to justify my statements about how sets form a heuristic framework for our ability to understand information, but it seems reasonable that classification by types rather than by, say, linking morphological features to linguistic counterparts, would make it easier to internalize objects (and later ideas) that need not be quantified (that is, labeled by a linguistic counterpart). I think this is also part of the reason why there is such a sense of immediacy to our tendency to classify based upon appearance and commonality: grouping by shared traits not only helps us better organize external stimuli, but allow us to synthesize them. If the quality of being hot is shared by objects that are in direct contact with fire, assuming that the hotness of fire is trivially true, we require no repeated stimuli (various iterations of hot objects) to be able to synthesize that touching such objects in that set would be an unfortunate idea.
Having this said though, I do not intend to overturn the notion of fallacy in set thinking – just because no swans have been observed to be black does not preclude the existence of a black swan. While this classic argument is unfortunately conflated with metaphysically heavy terminology (for example, what if a worldbound swan is necessarily described as white, and a bird that has the shape of a swan but is black would not properly be a swan), there is still a practical point to take away – just because all objects under a certain set share a property shares another property does not mean that subsequent objects sharing the first property must also share the second property.
In summation, classification is useful, and thus it is maintained despite efforts to convince people to abandon their heuristics of classification. I find fault with those who are overly quick in their attempts to peg prejudices to power structures. While I eventually agree to their arguments, I simply reject the view that one can condemn someone due to heuristics. As in the case of my childhood, the information that was available to me was a result of my personal experiences. I am not ashamed to say that I formed sets consisting of groups of people based upon morphological features, community associations, and common activities. That was my way of interpreting the world as a 7-year-old, a world of ingroups and outgroups that often left me on the “out”.
I think a lot of the charged terminology in our moral dialectic is charged in a way that fails to be constructive at the very least. I titled this post to point to something provocative and disconcerting; I am not endorsing racism, as I felt the impact of that firsthand, nor am I condoning the actions of those who engage in inflammatory racial dialogue as being a natural part of their mental development. However, I do claim that all people have the machinery and the capacity to form the outgroup/ingroup relationships that lead to asymmetric status relationships. The key word here, however, is capacity. In my case, one of my closest friends in 1st grade was a kindhearted girl who was also black. I learned very early on in the deep heart of Alabama that America was filled with amazing people who were also born with the capacity to treat others with dignity, grace, and respect – regardless of how their minds parsed data. Experience matters. So what do we take away from this? We are not 7-year-olds, but the sense of ingroup and outgroup relationships burn stronger than others. Next time, I will look at the evolutionary background of xenophobia and strike at the heart of a more relevant issue – why should we not regard people who hold views that we deem as “less moral” as lesser people as well?
Jif’s Notes: I originally intended to released my post about Religion, Science, and Epistemic Deference quite a while ago, but there was some foundational material that was lacking. I will try to update more regularly, but sometimes my ideas make less sense in my head than at other times. Photo credits belong to Mark Leong, National Geographic; I do not own any of the works.