Thursday, January 24, 2013

No True Human

Humanity is full of jerks. This should not be a surprise to anyone. Throughout the course of your day today, you will likely encounter one, at least in passing. This jerk may be of any creed, race or color. Because, well, humanity is full of  jerks, and so it stands to reason that any sufficiently large group is going to have at least one jerk in it. To a certain degree, we all understand this.

This, however, doesn't do anything to mitigate the human tendency to want to a) tar others with the behaviors of people that the tarred may not ever have even met or b) strive to portray whatever group one belongs to as absolutely free of jerks, crazies and criminals. Whether it's the assertion that Atheists are suspect because Communist dictators were non-believers or feeling a need to rebut assertions (warning, {unrelated} autoplay video imbedded in page) that recent mass shooters were "mostly registered Democrats," self-serving pattern recognition and the perceived need to combat it are alive and well.

Being primarily social animals, it's important that we care about what other people think of us. Within limits. And that is perhaps what is missing here. The "No True Scotsman" logical fallacy (and the converse, which we could term "Every True Scotsman") is driven by the need to expunge some group of people of a trait that is completely unrelated to the defining aspect of the group's identity. To use the examples from the Wikipedia page on the logical fallacy, what difference does it really make if a Scotsman turns out to be a sex offender or doesn't like haggis? Given that we understand that people are individuals, the willingness to surrender and/or deny that individuality simply in the service of cynical attempts to improve our social ranking, either by elevating ourselves or denigrating others becomes nonsensical, and the time spent attempting to refute such attempts is, quite frankly, wasted, especially in the industrialized West. Yes, there are places (and times) where what Group A, or simply certain powerful members, thinks of Group B is a matter of life and death. The Scotland of the 1970s and the United States of the 2000s are not typically counted among them, although it must be acknowledged that the tendency to confer "out-group" status, and then use that to justify taking actions that would not otherwise be tolerated is sadly, universal. (But it is, perhaps, important to remember the direction of causality at work here.)

While such groups do still exist, the majority of humanity is no longer comprised of small groups of hunter-gatherers for whom the people living just over the next rise were an unknown quality and potentially deadly threat. And so the evolutionary adaptations to that environment aren't always helpful anymore. But as is often the case with hard-wiring, it tends to be less about what's appropriate to the situation than it is about what's right at hand. But while negative stereotyping and the fear of same may be automatic responses, that doesn't mean that we should treat them as useful ones. We've overcome a number of evolutionary traits to get to where we are. Perhaps overcoming this one will help us go farther.

No comments: