In choice, we are so oft beguiled

It’s interesting just how important categories are in our lives, isn’t it? I mean, let’s face it, often they’re just adjectives –subordinate to their nouns. Add-ons. And yet, they can frame context, colour perception, and even determine value. Some, like, say, texture or odour may be interesting but trivial; some –size, or cost, for example- may be more important although optional in a description. There are, however, categories that seem to thrust themselves upon an object and are deemed essential to its description, essential to placing it in some sort of usable context. To understanding its Gestalt. These often spring to mind as questions so quickly they are almost automatic. Gender is one such category, age, perhaps another. And depending, I suppose on the situation, the society, or even the category to which the listener belongs, there may be several others that are deemed necessary to frame the issue appropriately.

The automaticity of a category is critical, however. If the category is felt to be of such consuming importance that it needs to be established before any further consideration can be given to the object, then that object’s worth –or at least its ranking- is contingent. It is no longer being evaluated neutrally, objectively. It comes replete with those characteristics attendant upon its category –intended or not. Age, for example, wears certain qualities, incites certain expectations that might prejudice acceptance of its behaviour. Gender, too, is another category that seems to colour assumptions about behaviour. So, with the assignation of category, comes opinion and its accompanying attitude.

One might well argue about the importance of these categories, and perhaps even strategize ways of neutralizing their influence on reactions, or subsequent treatment. The problem is much more difficult if knowledge of the category is so necessary it is intuitively provided as part of what is necessary to know about, for example, a person.

I suspect that in my naïveté, I had assumed that foreknowledge of many of these categories was merely curiosity-driven. Politeness oriented. Important, perhaps, so that I wouldn’t be surprised -wouldn’t embarrass the person at our initial encounter. But I am a doctor, and maybe see the world from a different perspective. A piece in the BBC, however, made me realize just how problematic this automaticity had become. How instinctive. http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20130423-is-race-perception-automatic?ocid

The article dealt mainly with its effects on racism, and the difficulties of countering it if we accept, as some evolutionary psychologists seem to believe, that it is basically intuitive. Evolved for a reason. Wired-in. ‘[…] if perceiving race is automatic then it lays a foundation for racism, and appears to put a limit on efforts to educate people to be “colourblind”, or put aside prejudices in other ways.’ But, as Tom Stafford, the author of the BBC article puts it, ‘Often, scientific racists claim to base their views on some jumbled version of evolutionary psychology (scientific racism is racism dressed up as science, not racisms based on science […]). So it was a delightful surprise when researchers from one of the world centres for evolutionary psychology intervened in the debate on social categorisation, by conducting an experiment they claimed showed that labelling people by race was far less automatic and inevitable than all previous research seemed to show.

‘The research used something called a “memory confusion protocol” […] When participants’ memories are tested, the errors they make reveal something about how they judged the pictures of individuals. […] If a participant more often confuses a black-haired man with a blond-haired man, it suggests that the category of hair colour is less important than the category of gender (and similarly, if people rarely confuse a man for a woman, that also shows that gender is the stronger category). Using this protocol, the researchers tested the strength of categorisation by race, something all previous efforts had shown was automatic. The twist they added was to throw in another powerful psychological force – group membership. People had to remember individuals who wore either yellow or grey basketball shirts. […] Without the shirts, the pattern of errors were clear: participants automatically categorised the individuals by their race (in this case: African American or Euro American). But with the coloured shirts, this automatic categorisation didn’t happen: people’s errors revealed that team membership had become the dominant category, not the race of the players. […] The explanation, according to the researchers, is that race is only important when it might indicate coalitional information – that is, whose team you are on. In situations where race isn’t correlated with coalition, it ceases to be important.’

I don’t know… To me, this type of experiment seems so desperate to appear to be wearing a scientific mantle, that it comes across as contrived –kludged, if you’ll permit an equally non-scientific term. But I take their point. If there is some way of diffusing the automaticity of our categorizations –or at least deflecting them into more malleable descriptors –teams, in this case- perhaps they could be used as exemplars –wedges to mitigate otherwise uncomfortable feelings. Placeboes –to put the concept into more familiar language for me.

Stopgaps, to be sure, and not permanent solutions. But sometimes, we have to ease into things less obtrusively. Less confrontationally. A still-evolving example -at least here in Canada- might be gender bias in hockey. Most Canadians have grown up exposed to hockey, and might be reasonably assumed to have an opinion on the conduct of games, players, and even rules. And yet, until relatively recently, the assumption was that hockey players –good ones, at least- were male. For us older folks, it was automatic. No thought required; no need to ask about gender. But no longer is that the case. For a variety of reasons, there is still no parity, and yet it is changing –slowly, perhaps, but not conflictually. And so, despite any initial challenges, is likely to succeed.

Am I really conflating success in the changing mores of hockey with gender equality? Or basketball teams and how we view their members, with racial equality? Am I assuming that diminishing discrimination in some fields leads to wider societal effects? Yes, I suppose I am. A blotter doesn’t care about the kind, or the colour, of the ink it absorbs; it’s just what it does. What it is. And, in the end, isn’t that what we all are, however vehemently we may protest? However much we may resist the similarities that bind us in relationship for fear of losing our own identities?

But if we step back a little, we may come to appreciate that the correlation need not be like that of a blotter -need not involve a team, or a marriage… I am reminded of the advice from one of my favourite writers, the poet, Kahlil Gibran: Love one another, but make not a bond of love: let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.

It’s the way I prefer to see the world, anyway…

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A Sympathy in Choice

‘As you are old and reverend, you should be wise.’ –so Shakespeare’s Goneril, King Lear’s evil daughter, advised her father. Her advice was deceptive -hostile, even- but there are times I feel that my judgement, too, has being unjustly impugned. Positions that I feel have been reasonably based and cogently argued, are attacked and maligned as if, because they dared to question the prevailing ethos, they are dangerous -or worse, should not even be heard. Should be retracted and the author forced to recant.

Some people are sensitive like that –so wrapped up in their own causes, they fear that anything similar, but more controversial, might detract from their not-yet successful endeavours. Understandable, perhaps, if they fail to thoroughly examine the merits and deficits of the other approach –refuse to consider how the one may complement the other, and vilify it to make those who would adopt it seem apostates.

Gender issues seem particularly vulnerable, maybe because they have recently been heavily exposed to public scrutiny. They are seen to be so fragile, that any attempts at critical analysis are often seen as foundational attacks, rather than efforts to better understand and underpin their framework. Comparisons are fraught, to be sure, but only when they can withstand the scrutiny of impartial examination, will they be accepted as mainstream -sufficiently natural to fade seamlessly into the Gestalt.

Of course, public confusion over terms (LGBTIQ, etc.), and the amalgamation of so many different communities of difference, makes easy and seamless acceptance perplexing for many who watch, bewildered from the edges, but progress is occurring nonetheless. Homosexuality, gay marriage, and adoption to gay couples are only the issues most recently being fast-tracked into conventional thinking. Not everybody agrees, of course, but then again what do we all agree on? Even religions and political parties still divide us.

But race (whatever that is) seems unduly stubborn. Despite the fact that DNA studies have consistently failed to demonstrate any genetic basis for racial categorizations, there seems to be an almost tribal requirement to allocate people into us and them –for othering, in sociology-speak. For seeking comfort and succour from those who most resemble us. Safety. Security. There is an assumed empathy in those who share the same assignation, an expected commonality of experience when compared with non-members. And there is not only an assumed history that unites, but also a presumed genealogy that ensures loyalty to whatever the group believes. Disavowal of what it does not.

And yet, it is a very social construct. What, for example, constitutes a valid pedigree? Any family membership in a group, no matter how far back in time, and whether or not it is inside the legal boundaries of wedlock? Or, suppose you do not look like your parents or their assumed grouping –or, conversely, you do, and yet were adopted? What if –more problematically, to be sure- you identify with another group, either because of outside influences, or a certainty within yourself, that you belong? What if you were mistakenly brought up as if you were a member, suffered along with it, saw the world through its eyes, but later discovered you had been adopted from another group? Does it make any difference? Are you somehow a less valuable member if you don’t carry the proper cards?

So, what if you decided you wanted to ‘be’ a member of another group –in the case in point, another ‘race’. Can one be transracial? And further, what might that mean? Does, ‘identifying’ with a ‘race’, qualify as anything? I have to say that I had never thought much about it until I came across an absolutely riveting article entitled In Defense of Transracialism, in the March 2017 edition of Hypatia, a journal of Feminist philosophy, written by Rebecca Tuvel, who teaches the philosophy of race and gender at Rhodes College.

I felt it was exceedingly well substantiated with cogent arguments, and compelling documentation, so I was dismayed when I discovered (in a piece from a different source: https://theconversation.com/i-wanna-be-white-can-we-change-race-78899?) that the article elicited ‘an open letter signed by hundreds of academics who demanded the journal retract the article.’ And further, that ‘the associate editors of the journal issued a long apology saying that the article should never have been published.’ I was only slightly mollified that the ‘Editorial Board responded with its own statement in support of the author’. The reaction of the academics merely underlined the unwillingness to entangle themselves in an equally scholastic attempt to explore the similarities between gender identification and the ability to racially identify. Tuvel suggests that there are many features in common, and although her argument is too long to easily summarize, I was willing to share her point of view by the end.

I suppose the most notorious case she discusses, is that of Rachel Dolezal, the former head of a local NAACP who was born to white parents but lived for many years as a black woman. ‘[…] Dolezal’s experience living with four adoptive black siblings since she was a young teenager coupled with her strong sense of dissociation from her biological parents, her later marriage to an African American man with whom she had a child, and her strong sense of familial connection to a black man named Albert Wilkerson, whom she calls “Dad,” all impacted her understanding of her own racial identity.’ That she did not officially qualify as ‘black’ and could therefore not possibly know what it meant to be black seemed unduly important to her detractors. Her duplicity alone disqualified her in many eyes and rendered her professed enthusiasm for her blackness a mockery. Invalid. White privilege…

Dolezal, became the unwilling focus of identity politics in which, perhaps understandably, the LGBTIQ community did not wish to become entwined. Any argument in her defense, it was suggested, does a disservice to the political context of transgender communities, and the violence of racism. And yet, in drawing parallels with those aspects of personal identity which are inherently fluid, Tuvel allows us to see that boundaries are also fickle, and over stretches of time, evanescent. Arbitrary. Even unstable.

But, loathe as I am to side with Shakespeare’s Claudius, and although taken out of context, there is something to his contention:

‘That we would do, we should do when we would, for this “would” changes and hath abatements and delays as many as there are tongues, are hands, are accidents. And then this “should” is like a spendthrift sigh that hurts by easing.

Thank you, Rebecca Tuvel; more than simply opening my eyes, you have opened my mind.