Tuesday, June 29, 2010

All Generalizations are False

One morning while driving to Castroville I passed a truck on the side of the road. Three or four miles later I passed a middle-aged white man in a gimme cap and jeans, carrying something in one hand and his other hand extended with his thumb out. I damn near pulled over, but during the crucial moment I thought: "If I were his daughter, wife, mother, sister, and I stopped to pick up a hitcher while I was alone, he'd kick my butt."

I didn't feel good about it, but out of respect for his presumed feelings on the matter I went on by and he kept trudging. I hope one of the construction crews I passed that morning stopped for him. Assuming, as I do, that the truck was his, he'd already walked a lot farther than he should have had to - a lot farther than I would have had to. I know this because I've been stranded before. In Texas, anyway, and among Texans, middle-aged white women practically have rescue-on-demand as a class feature (to put it in gaming terms).

I like to think that, for almost any other conglomeration of features, I would have stopped. It seems only fair, since people will stop for me; and certain types of people are statistically far less likely to be rescued. A Mexican woman with kids in tow on Highway 90 will probably be picked up by the first Mexican driver to come along; but a black person of any age or gender is almost certainly going to be stuck, and I hope I'd have the decency to recognize this in time. But people seldom hitch these days: because cultural paranoia both stops people like me from picking them up, for fear that they might be rapists and serial killers, and leads potential hitchers to expect a high risk that anyone who did pick them up was a serial killer or rapist. Since I seldom have the opportunity to pick up a hitcher, my database for predicting my own behavior is inadequate. I don't know what I'd do in any given situation until I do it. Nobody does.

So how does this gel with my confident assumption that a man I'd never met, of whom I caught a glimpse breezing by at 70 MPH, would disapprove of my stopping to rescue him? If I don't know what I'd do, how can I be so sure how he'd feel? Isn't it wrong to operate on stereotypes like that?

Well - sure. But I defy you to learn anything without generalizing from past experience, or to have repeated experiences and not generalize from them. We sort things into categories for handy reference so we can make quick judgements when we need to. That rattling noise you hear may not be a rattlesnake, but if it is, freezing in position while you get more facts could save your life. If in your experience gimme caps, trucks, and middle-aged white faces are packaged with a certain set of attitudes and behaviors, adapting your own behavior to take those into account is reasonable and will save you the trouble of reanalyzing your deameanor towards every new middle-aged white face you see. For that matter, you're using generalizations even to recognize sex, age, color, vehicle, and headgear as important features in an encounter. And you can't talk about good, evil, war, peace, health, illness, literature, or the weather without generalizing. The capacity to do so is a basic component of the mechanics of human intelligence.

I've talked about this a little before when I talked about how genre is a fantasy. It's bad to mistake the map for the territory; but if you don't have the map, you can't negotiate the territory. I love the paradox I used for the post title, because like any good paradox it's true. It works. Any social acumen I possess, any capacity I have to work out a rational course of action, any ability I have to create believable three-dimensional characters, depends on my keeping that principle in mind.

At worst, stereotypes aren't based on real experience, but are projections of one's fears, faults, and worst impulses. I could trot out any number of examples, but that would make people angry (and by people I mean me). But stereotypes can also be subverted and turned to positive uses, making the people to whom they apply more familiar and less frightening. The tendency of minorities to embrace negative steretypes of themselves for humorous purposes is brilliant tactics, a kind of cultural judo, though it can be embarrassing or disempowering at certain stages of the acculturation process. And for a writer, starting with a stereotype and finding the human being inside is a good characterization trick to have in the bag.

But a generalization is not a universally applicable truth. In order to be useful, you have to be able to come down to specifics. It's counterproductive to keep looking for rattlesnakes in New York City every time you hear a rattle. I'm entitled to initiate contact, or not, with a person based on how the last 100 middle-aged white men in gimme caps treated me, but once we're in contact, if this one treats me differently, I need to react to him, not to the last 100.

The only person we ever kicked out of our gaming group had one image of me, and another of my husband. Holding a fruitful conversation with him became impossible when I was always responded to as some shining persecuted angel of patience, regardless of what I said, and Damon was always responded to as an arrogant amoral cad, regardless of what he did, in game or out. That was an extreme case; but people do this to each other all the time. I don't think I've ever seen a flamewar that didn't start with one person doing this to another.

We can't, alas, stop other people from doing this to us. But we can, and should, and must, strive to keep ourselves from doing it to them. Whether "they" are real people, or historical figures, or characters.

I think I should have stopped for him.

(And now for something completely different: Origami that folds itself! How cool is that?)

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