Classism vs. Racism: Which is Worse? Part I

Originally, the Greek “ism” began life in the English language as a suffix means of forming action nouns from verbs or nouns and did not imply anything evil (i.e., baptize, baptism; real, realism; existence, existentialism; Darwin, Darwinism). Unfortunately, since “communism” and especially now with “terrorism”, using an “ism” to describe an individual’s acts or ideas has become an easy and instinctive way to ridicule the acts or ideas. Intellectualism, sexism, racism, heterosexualism, barbarism, despotism, plagiarism are modern obvious omnipresent examples as is classism though the latter is little acknowledged or used in the United States that falsely claims and wants to be classless. This easy and in the modern world instinctive method of argument uses the same supposed evils of which it accuses the proponent of the bad “ism”: generalization and stereotype. Is there a difference between generalization and stereotype? If there is, at what point if any does a generalization become a stereotype or the other way around? Is either one or both inherently logically unsound or evil? What about specifically racism and classism? Is either racism or classism inherently logically unsound or evil, a subset of the other, an arbitrary creation of the will, or a necessary part of the reality of social and cultural interaction among humans? Is either worse than the other? These are questions I will consider in the next series of blogs. For now, I am not restricting “racism” to its very recent polemic definition in modern history of solely white/black racism, the term racism historically covers much more than this fairly recent version.

Throughout known history, any human coming in contact with another human has differentiated him or herself from the other. There is no way around self-consciousness; I am, therefore I think. Even a solitary hunter/gatherer meeting another solitary hunter/gatherer in the middle of nowhere will have to make a decision as to what to do about this other. If the decision is made irrationally or reflexively, by that I mean without going through a conscious process of induction or deduction, it will be made upon instincts created by life experience — instincts resulting from prior successful or unsuccessful inductions or deductions. If the decision is a conscious one, it will be made by a process of induction or deduction based on prior successful or unsuccessful inductions or deductions. Either way, in the absence of a pure altruistic instinct (assuming such exists) or a purely malevolent instinct (assuming such exists) fully controlling the individuals, the process will unavoidably involve such generalization or stereotype about the other individual.

In human consciousness, there is no way around the use of generalization and it is not evil nor logically unsound. All statements of fact or truth require some generalization. Generalization is the foundation of science. All inductive reasoning infers from a finite set of observations and experiences to a generalization claiming to hold true for a larger set of observations and experiences, even for those in the larger set that have not been seen or experienced. These generalizations, if not proven false, are then the premises for deductive reasoning, including for scientific deductive reasoning. Generalizations offer a theory about how things are in general. Thus the statement “all ravens are black” is a useful generalization, though no one person has ever been able to validate it by inspecting every raven on earth or every raven that has ever existed, and no one knows what ravens will be like in the future. Without such inductive reasoning, we would not be able to survive the day, survive life, nor would we have the modern world of science and technology. For purposes of the present contemplation, I will not challenge the soundness of inductive reasoning (If you have a firm belief in the rationality of inductive reasoning as somehow being better than instinct or faith — an issue beyond this blog but considered in, I suggest that you contemplate the raven paradox, also known as Hempel’s Paradox.)

The meaning of a word is its use. In common use, a “generalization” refers to a rational effort to categorize or describe facts, while a “stereotype” refers to an irrational effort to categorize or describe facts. Ideally, then, neither is a subset of the other but are distinct means of consciously categorizing or describing reality (unless you want to define the set as a collection of such means). Practically, however, how does one differentiate between a “rational” and an “irrational” effort? This is not as easy as it seems it should be. Both generalization and stereotypes involve inductive reasoning to reach a conclusion and then deduction to test or to live based on that conclusion. Often they are impossible to differentiate except based on a polemic reason: we want a statement to be one or the other.

When the differentiation is possible, it involves examination of the speaker’s intent in combination with an examination of the quantitative basis for the induced inferences. The deductions made from those inferences do not matter because in the real world, simply as a result of pure luck, true deductions may result from completely false inferences and bad intent. A stereotype should not become rational and thus a generalization as a result of pure luck.

Intent is one part of the criteria for differentiation and often is dispositive of the question. The function of the generalization “all ravens are black” is to understand and to allow people to understand and to work better with ravens not to harm or to oppress ravens. If the intent was purely to harm or oppress ravens for one’s benefit, we would have some doubt about it being a purely rational process and may call it a stereotype until we get an almost certain basis for the induction. (We can never get certainty because it is induction.) Is observation of one raven enough or do we need 100,000 observations when you are trying to harm all ravens based on the generalization that all ravens are black? For general statements made by a person with an obvious intent to categorize an entire class of people for oppression such as “all women are delusional” and “all black men are criminals”, the evil intent is so clear that unless they are supported by an observation of every individual woman and every individual black man — which is impossible — they would be called irrational and thus stereotypes regardless of the factual basis.

However, intent is not the sole basis for differentiation. What if the latter statements were made by an isolated person observing women in a large psychiatric ward and while observing black men in a prison? In these latter examples, there may be no evil intent but the statements would still be called stereotypes because the latter statements involve a set of observed facts that are too small for making inferences about the large quantity of members in the larger class or, based on simple experience, would clearly result in false inferences, thus they are stereotypes regardless of intent. The quantity covered by the generalization must be compared to the quantity of the observations upon which it is based. If the comparison leads to a ratio that experience indicates is too high, it is usually called a stereotype.

Sometimes, these two elements are ignored or hidden. Even simple scientific generalizations are not free of some subjective perhaps evil intention by the speaker that is often ignored for practical purposes. In science’s case, the intent many would say is to manipulate nature to human ends. In the absence of this intent for power, I doubt much if any scientific knowledge would have ever occurred, but again, this issue is beyond this blog. Regardless of this hidden malevolent intent that may be present in all scientific generalizations, they are still called generalizations and not stereotypes if the inferences are based on an acceptable quantity of facts and lead to deductions that can be tested and proven false in such test. (Again, since we are dealing with induction, no generalization can ever be proven true because it is impossible to test all of reality.) Similarly, if there is acceptable or politically correct intent, inferences based on insufficient or unsound observations are readily called generalizations. This happens all the time in economics and politics whose practitioners almost as a matter of routine assume A causes B simply because A correlates with B. (For an interesting analysis of such assumption, please see David Hume’s critique of cause and effect in his A Treatise of Human Nature and An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.)

In areas of non-economic human interaction, the differentiation is much more difficult and usually impossible to make. A person listens to a fishing story from a black man or woman and assumes that they are lying about the size of the catch because they are black or a woman. Such would be irrational and thus stereotype because even basic life experience leads to the conclusion that everyone lies when they want to lie regardless of sex or skin color — thus this stereotype can also be described as evil sexism and racism. However, what if the person does not believe the story simply because based on 25 years of life experience with fishing and dozens of fishing stories they have honestly made the generalization that “all fishermen exaggerate the size of their catch”? We cannot simply say that such is stereotype because it is based solely on one person’s experience but has never been scientifically tested. The vast majority of our generalizations by which we survive the day and life have never been and will never be tested scientifically and are based solely on our experience. In this latter situation, the statement about fishing cannot be formally or practically stated to be either a generalization or a stereotype and may be either, and no conclusion can be made as to whether it is inherently good or evil; any such moral conclusion would depend on the circumstances of its use. Some people make this conclusion about fishing, use it to survive in life, and it is simply an unfortunate reality of human nature that it needs generalization and stereotype to survive in life.

Logically therefore, there is a difference between generalization and stereotype. However, in practice, it is often difficult and sometimes impossible to make this differentiation. In the difficult cases, if there is any hope of making the differentiation, it would require a logical but open mind, life experience with the facts at issue, and empathy to make the differentiation — traits entirely lacking in the author of “Between the World and Me” and in most popular pundits on racism or classism, either for or against. Without this combination of traits, outside of science and technology where generalizations actually can be empirically tested, a generalization becomes a stereotype or the other way around when the individual making an argument wants to make the change. A generalization though logically sound can be either good or evil. A stereotype is logically unsound and not good but not necessarily evil. What about specifically racism and classism? What are they? Good or evil? Are either a necessary part of social and cultural interaction, arbitrary creations of the human will, or both depending on the situation?

On an individual level, classism and racism when acting as stereotypes are equally evil. They each will result in a situation of one person acting upon or toward another irrationally for purposes of oppression. When acting as generalizations, that is resulting from a rational basis, each is equally good. However, when individual generalizations or stereotypes some time join and some time conflict in a social fabric of almost infinite interactions serving as a basis for social and cultural power distribution and normative principles, classism not only is the greater evil but unfortunately it is a necessary evil. As the Good Book says, the battle is not always to the strong nor the race to the swift but that is the way to bet. Through the science of genetics and cosmetic surgery, we may eventually live in a world without racism because eventually there may be no races. We will never live in a world without classism. As even Christianity admits, “[y]ou will always have the poor among you …” Matthew, 26: 11; Mark 14: 7. Why this is true will be discussed in the next set of blogs.

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