Tag Archives: stop and frisk

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.

Links: Histomaps, Wall Street thugs, etc.

1. A histomap of world history.

2. On “The Daily Show,” profiling white-collar criminals (as I tell my students, white-collar crime is where the real money is).

3. Pinsky on poets’ freedom. This article also contains a neat explication of rhythm in two poems.

Here are two of his ideas for poets to ponder:

The work’s freedom to establish its own unique principles, alive in particular cadences and words and lines and sentences: that is the goal.


There are no rules, but uniformity in art can make it feel as though there are rules: the more unconscious or unperceived (as with widely accepted fashions), the more confining.

A reigning style can feel tyrannical: the assumptions behind it so well-established that there seem to be no alternatives. But there are always alternatives.

4. No one can really every “opt out”, writes Matt Gross:

What seems unrealistic, however, is their belief that they could somehow escape from Work–that they could live lives apart from the System. I mean, as much as I hate that system, and as little as I expect from it, I understand that it is inescapable. To be alive in America in 2013 is to be a worker of one sort or another–a freelancer, a volunteer, DIY publishing maven, a hack screenwriter, a dog-walker, a can-collector, a social media consultant, a branding expert, a T-shirt designer. Pretend that the System doesn’t apply to you, that you can step outside of it for a year or ten, and the System will let you have your fantasy and then, cruelly, crush you when you return to reality. The opt-out generation is getting crushed right now.

5. Our privacy instinct: “We don’t really believe in the internet” yet.

6. “The flattening of e-book sales.”

7. Bible passages certain fundamental Christians seem to overlook.

8. Via NPR, the history of Billboard’s “Hot 100” chart.

9. A suggestion that Americans are less willing to stand against authority figures.

10. I know that I don’t need to guilt myself into reading more than I do, but it’s good to be reminded: No less an eminence than E.B. White was “never a voracious reader.” (Original interview here.)