There are some people that I just don’t like; people who are not – as the quote goes – “one… of… us…”. Some of these groups are; people who willing hurt others for the fun of it, kiddy fiddlers, racists, or global warming deniers. Well, maybe the last group are people I’m confused by, not people I dislike.
When we separate people into opposing groups we define as “us” and “them”
But for the others, it’s more than just the feeling of disliking them, because I’m aware that the groups people I don’t like, I also tend to discriminate against. I wouldn’t give up my seat for them, or offer them my last beer. If there was money to be handed out, I’d hand it out first to the people I like and consider more like me.
You’ll notice that the people I dislike are not blacks. They’re not transgender and they’re not the homeless and the reason I don’t dislike people who identify as those things is because I don’t think those categories have anything to with any moral choice(s) those people are making.
When we separate people into opposing groups we define as “us” and “them” that aren’t based on people’s choices, and then we act differently towards those people, it’s arbitrary and discriminatory. Now, for those happy to act in arbitrary and discriminatory ways, this article won’t matter. For those who aren’t happy being like that, bear with me a little longer.
This could be an article arguing that categorizing or stereotyping is not human nature, but I’m not quite that naïve. I know that people categorize things and that it’s functional to do so. To my knowledge, the evolutionary argument is: those people that could accurately categorize others into groups and make useful conclusions about those groups conserved mental resources which could be better used to make decisions about other things. For example, if you see a snake killing a horse and then a snake killing a cow the next time you see something that you think is a snake you’ll assume it’s capable of killing you. The people that successfully identified the snake as being in the ‘dangerous’ category didn’t waste time, energy, and family members finding out firsthand whether it was dangerous.
…any decision/action based on categories that aren’t to do with what people have chosen, is arbitrary and discriminatory.
Furthermore, this ability to make assumptions about an individual because you’ve judged they belong to a larger group is still relevant today. If your experience is that the Jewish people are concerned with saving, you’d have a reason to assume that the next Jewish person you come across will also be concerned with saving. If your experience is that heterosexual men aren’t tolerant of your homosexuality, you’d have a reason to expect that the next heterosexual man you come across is also going to be intolerant of it. Right or wrong, it’s something we seem programmed to do.
Some might say this is a ‘natural’ way of being because we’ve evolved that way, others might say it’s just good, functional logic. And while some would say we should move beyond this instinct (me included), few would argue we don’t have a tendency to categorize and stereotype.
What causes a problem is when we run on auto-pilot and this programming becomes the basis for our decisions and actions.
My argument then, is that any decision/action based on categories that aren’t to do with what people have chosen, is arbitrary and discriminatory. The primary reason this is true is because the categories themselves have arbitrary boundaries – not that the categories can’t be clearly defined – just that that the definitions themselves are arbitrary.
Recently, James B. Barnes wrote an article about Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti arranging housing for the many homeless Central American children who’ve crossed into the U.S., waiting to see if they’ll be allowed to stay in the country. While the article didn’t express a positive or negative opinion, in the comments James said, “I think that American citizens should be taken care of with American tax dollars before others” and “I care about my countrymen first… I prioritize”. The crux of his point was that he disagreed that Mayor Garcetti should be providing homes for Central American immigrant children over the LA “youth homeless population”.
Here, we can see how people have been separated into an “us” (homeless American children) and “them” (homeless Central American children) category, and then, a decision has been made based on those categories (who should get housing). To re-iterate, I don’t deny it seems natural to prioritize the people we categorize as “our own” first. That, however, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to base a decision on – whether we’re talking about the moral “right” or the best thing for the survival of the human species (but that might be a different essay).
Here, I want to acknowledge that in the article, James never suggested homeless American children were inherently more deserving than Central American homeless children, but when he was asked on “what basis do you judge one child more deserving than another?” he responded by saying, “I identify with my country and its fate in a sincere way. That means that I care about my countrymen first”. In other words, because they’re American, homeless American children (HAC) deserve housing more than homeless Central American children (HCAC).
So what does it mean to be a HAC as opposed to being a HCAC?
Does it mean those born only to American parents? Of course not. Americans are those born in America.
But they are not limited to those born in America… Surely if there were children that were born elsewhere and have become American citizens, they would be prioritized over HCACs?
In separating people like this, into categories that have no reference to the choices they’ve made, we leave ourselves open to making a decisions based on…arbitrary categories.
So the category isn’t about where you were born or who you were born to, but perhaps to do with your legal status as a citizen? Now, I could carry on and go through the legal minutiae about what it means to be a HAC, but that’s not the point. What I’m happy to do though, is concede that there is a definite point where a clear definition of a HAC would be established. Or should I say, the definition would be stipulated: stipulated according to geography or law or a combination of the two.
And tomorrow it might change. The boundaries given for HACs are only based on the (constantly re-defined) constructs of geography, politics and law, and then, people are considered part of that group.
This is self-evident as the concept of “homeless” and “American” (and even “child”) are stipulated concepts themselves, not to mention, concepts that can differ according to who’s interpreting them. In sum, the boundaries of these categories are changeable and while the reasons for their boundaries may not be arbitrary, the categories themselves are.
In separating people like this, into categories that have no reference to the choices they’ve made, we leave ourselves open to making a decisions based on these arbitrary categories. I, for one, don’t want to be acting arbitrarily – especially if we’re going to be talking about prioritizing human lives.
Sometimes people try to argue that there is something inherently different/special/deserving about Americans. Unless you can show me a choice that all Americans have made that others haven’t, I won’t be convinced.
Another argument that’s raised in this discussion is an economic one: in James’s example, this would be that what’s actually being talked about is the spending of American (LA) tax dollars; that this alone is reason for HACs to be prioritized… After all, not many people would want their hard earned dollars going to a foreign country/people. And I understand that’s how people feel – it seems only natural. But what choice did the HACs make that makes them deserving? On what non-arbitrary basis are HACs more deserving of American tax dollars than HCACs?
I have argued that people have a tendency to think in an “us” and “them” way and when those categories aren’t based on the choices those groups make, we’re unfairly discriminating against one of those groups. I think that we’re programmed to think like this, and because of this, people rarely question whether it’s actually moral or productive to do so. Do you?
TL:DR? If you don’t want your judgements about people to be arbitrary and discriminatory, ask yourself what choices people have made to be in those categories.