Stereotyping & Profiling: Wrong-thinking about plurals

An addendum to this post.

When we group together a number of unique, particular things as being members of the same category, we are subtracting the unique qualities of each particular entity, and asserting that each particular is, in some essential way, the same as each other entity in the same categorical group.

That’s abstract language. Here’s an example: When we gather 20 apples into a container, we are ignoring particular marks on each apple, the tastes of each apple, the history of each apple, etc. We may then be surprised when some apples taste better than others, or rot before others, but we shouldn’t be surprised by that.

Likewise, in any grouping of people (such as the school “class” mentioned in the prior post), the group-label erases the individual, unique qualities of each person.

This is why racial profiling or stereotyping is wrong-thinking.

To group people by race or ethnicity is itself problematic, as “race,” “ethnicity,” and particular group identities are not easy, or even useful, to define. How much Swedish ancestry must one have to be considered Swedish? Does a one-drop rule for racial or ethnic definition even make sense?

But even once a group — for example, Swedes — is defined, assigning other attributes to that group — saying that a certain group of people like to wear sweaters, say — is usually B.S. because these new attributes are not part of the definition.

But even if a certain characteristics of a group have a statistical significance, it does not at all mean that every member of that group has that characteristic. Surely there are Swedes who prefer turtlenecks to sweaters for warmth-keeping?

And this is the problem with racial profiling. Whenever someone tries to justify using racial profiling by asserting crime stats that show certain groups as overrepresented, this makes the mistake of confusing a particular person being profiled with the stats about the group. Profiling defines all members of a group as being essentially indistinguishable; it is ignoring the differences in particular people, which differences are defined away by seeing that person as a member of a group.

It is wrong thinking to identify any particular person as having those traits commonly (and often weakly, or wrongly) associated with that person’s group-inclusion. Such wrong thinking, not surprisingly, will lead to inefficiencies and personal violations, and will one day be recognized as wrong-thinking.

And this wrong-thinking, I want to suggest, is a result of the basic mathematical/philosophical logic of abstracting: defining groups and assigning individuals to those groups, without being aware that the abstractions of definitions and categories and even plurals aren’t physically real and are arbitrary. We choose how to see the world when we choose our definitions, labels, and distinctions, and we may find these abstract ideas useful or not-useful, but these ideas aren’t true.

We ought to be aware that we ourselves, we human thinkers, have done this choosing, and that we can let go of the old definitions and make new ones whenever the old ones become problematic. Ideas are for us to use, and not for use to abuse.

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