I would discuss this, but I don’t have time

The Juan Williams mess led to a long and provocative thread about normal fears and irrational prejudices, and what we should feel free to express about certain situations in modern life without getting fired for it.

And at some point, I posted the following in that thread, and it was so long I decided to make it into a separate post, even though, once I post it, I really need to move on to other stuff… Anyway, what I said was”

You know, there’s a whole conversation I’d be interested to have here about the way a healthy human brain works that takes this out of the realm of political correctness-vs.-Angry White Males, which is about as deep as we usually go.

But in the last week of an election, when I’m having trouble blogging at all, much less keeping up with all the election-related things I need to be writing about… I don’t have time to set out all my thoughts on the subject.

But to sort of give a hint…

What I’m thinking is this: There are certain things that we decry today, in the name of being a pluralistic society under the rule of law, that are really just commonsense survival strategies, things programmed into us by eons of evolution.

For instance, we sneer at people for being uneasy in certain situations — say, among a group of young males of a different culture or subculture. And we are right to sneer, to a certain extent, because we are enlightened modern people.

But, if our ancestors weren’t uneasy and ready to fight or flee in such a situation, they wouldn’t have lived to reproduce, and we wouldn’t be here. Thousands of years ago, people who felt all warm and fuzzy and wanted to celebrate multiculturalism when in the company of a bunch of guys from the rival tribe got eaten for dinner, and as a result, those people are NOT our ancestors. We inherited our genes from the edgy, suspicious, cranky people — the racists and nativists of their day.

Take that to the next level, and we recognize that such tendencies are atavistic, and that it’s actually advantageous in our modern market economy governed by liberal democracies to be at ease with folks from the other “tribes.” In fact, the more you can work constructively with people who are different, the more successful you will be at trade, etc.

So quite rightly we sneer at those who haven’t made the socio-evolutionary adjustment. They are not going to get the best mates, etc., because chicks don’t dig a guy who’s always itching for a fight. So they’re on the way out, right?

However… the world hasn’t entirely changed as much as we think it has. There are still certain dangers, and the key is to have the right senses to know when you need to be all cool and open and relaxed, and when you need to be suspicious as hell, and ready to take evasive or combative action.

This requires an even higher state of sophistication. Someone who is always suspicious of people who are different is one kind of fool. Someone who is NEVER suspicious of people who are different (and I’m thinking more of people with radically different world views — not Democrats vs. Republicans, but REALLY different — more than I am people wearing funny robes) is another kind of fool.

The key, ultimately, is not to be any kind of fool. The key is to be a thoughtful, flexible survivor who gets along great with the Middle-eastern-looking guy in the airport queue or the Spanish-speakers in the cereals aisle at Walmart, but who is ready to spring into action to deal with the Middle-eastern-looking guy in seat 13A who’s doing something weird with the smoking sole of his shoe (or the Aryan guy doing the same, but my point is that you don’t give the Arab pass in such a situation just to prove how broad-minded you are), or the Spanish-speaking guy wielding an AK-47 over a drug deal…

This may seem common sense, but there are areas in which we will see conflicts between sound common sense and our notions of rigid fairness in a liberal democracy. For instance, I submit that an intelligent person who deals with the world as it is will engage in a certain amount of profiling. I mean, what is profiling, anyway, but a gestalten summation of what you’ve learned about the world in your life, applied to present and future situations? The ability to generalize, and act upon generalizations — without overdoing it — are key life skills.

There are certain traits that put you on guard and make you particularly vigilant under particular circumstances, or you are a fool. If you’re in an airport and you see a group of 20-something Mediterranean-looking males (and young males from ANY culture always bear more watching than anyone else — sorry, guys, but y’all have a long rap sheet) unaccompanied by women or children or old men, and they’re muttering and fidgeting with something in their bags… you’re not very bright if you don’t think, “This bears watching.”

Now of course, knowing this, if I’m a terrorist organization, I’m going to break up that pattern as much as I can. (I’ll have them travel separately, wear western clothes, coach them not to seem furtive, etc. I’ll recruit middle-aged women if I can, although they generally have far too much sense.) So if you’re watching this scene, and you are intelligent, you’re bound to think, “These guys look SO suspicious that they must be innocent, because terrorists aren’t that stupid…” Well, yeah, they can be. Let me submit the evidence of the guy who set his underpants on fire… So there’s such a thing as overthinking the situation. I mean, how bright is a guy who wants to blow himself up to make a point? People who do that ALSO don’t reproduce, so evolution militates against it…

Anyway, I’d go on and on about this, and examine all the implications, and endeavor to challenge the assumptions of people of all political persuasions… but I don’t have time this week.

9 thoughts on “I would discuss this, but I don’t have time

  1. Fred

    Brad wrote, “Anyway, I’d go on and on about this”. You mean there’s more to say??? Isn’t there an old journalism saying that less is sometimes more?

  2. Brad

    That’s in old media. This is more stream of consciousness.

    Also, it takes too much time to write shorter. Half the time, or more than half the time, I spent on columns at The State was spent cutting them from twice the publishable length…

  3. Mark Stewart

    I learned some valuable lessons as a straphanger on the NYC subways.

    One is a fun game called “spot the pickpocket”. Sometimes you can’t, and sometimes you can – but it’s NEVER the one that gut instinct would lead me to focus on.

    We might be conditioned by natural selection to be on edge at times, but it is our social conditioning that teaches us about other people. That’s the rub. We often fear what we simply don’t understand.

    What we need to do, as on the subway, is look for the subtler clues. To use Brad’s example for instance, I’m not alarmed by a group of young men milling about – I have learned to be very wary of a group of THREE young men feigning nonchalance and working to avoid eye contact. It’s the difference between perception and experience.

  4. Barry


    Good topic.

    I view things quite differently than Mark does.

    I’ve had, I guess, too many experiences in my life where I WAS ABLE to “spot the pickpocket.” IN fact, I am pretty good at it.

    I think that’s a valuable skill- and one some people are afraid to either develop or even admit that they want to have.

    The difference though- and I think the point that gets lost – is that there is nothing wrong with trying to spot the pickpocket. It’s a valuable thing in today’s world.

    Where people cross the line is when they take actions that are actually detrimental to other people only based on a suspicion.

  5. Karen McLeod

    In each of the cases you mentioned, the person or group was exhibiting behavior that any sane person would find suspicious. It seems to me that it makes the most sense to work on being observant. If you waste time worrying about a person in foreign dress when that person does nothing to make one suspicious, then you may miss the ‘good ol’ boy’ right next to you who’s pulling out his box cutter.

  6. Phillip

    Getting into our genetic “hard-wiring” is a little above my pay grade, as BHO might say. I hear what you’re saying, Brad, but there also is a lot of recent work out there arguing for the evolutionary advantages of altruism and the like. We need an evolutionary biologist to weigh in here. Maybe it was the cave tribes who figured out that working together with the guys who didn’t look like them would bring down more woolly mammoths are the ones who survived to pass on their genes to us.

    I think about this kind of thing a lot every time I go to my little 3-year-old’s preschool/daycare. As early as he can remember, he’s been around kids of many different races and ethnicities, white, black, Indian, Pakistani, Asian, kids from mixed marriages, you name it. I really don’t think the “differences” register with him, or the other kids, to any level beyond “oh my hair is blonde and hers is dark” or some such. It’s a constant reminder, a daily one for me really, that we (of all races) are taught everything we learn about race, it’s not innate. So if “profiling” is partly a “summation of what you’ve learned about the world in your life,” then it’s a summation of what teaching and culture (and yes, I must include the least attractive aspects of organized religion in this) have inculcated in human beings who do not start life possessing this “knowledge.” What we have to figure out is how to unlearn all this, and most importantly, how to hang onto this innate lack of race-based thinking from early childhood. Of course obviously children in a fairly urban American environment, and Columbia counts as such, are going to have a much earlier exposure to kids of diverse race/ethnicity than kids in more racially homogeneous locations elsewhere in the world.

  7. Kathryn Jean Braun Fenner

    Gavin de Becker, in The Gift of Fear, a widely lauded book, says that we have evolutionary protection devices we need to heed, and that, as Karen writes, we may ignore because of stereotyping–we assume the well-dressed, well-spoken person cannot possibly be the crook our lizard brains are telling us he/she is.

    Harvard magazine (hubby gets it–I’m a proud USC alumna) has a very interesting article about the judgments we make abut people. One of the points the Harvard psychology researcher makes is that people in power positions rely on stereotypes because they can. Out-groups are frequently victims of negative stereotyping for a variety of reasons, including cultural norms of “warmth,” assuming power postures, exuding confidence/competence and the like. In addition, being in a position of dominance (like being white and wealthy) creates a feedback loop–you have more testosterone and less cortisol than your “inferiors.”
    Apprently, we make these judgments in seconds, and we are indeed right, as far as they go. The problem lies in whether we are correctly attributing motive to them. Is the furtively glancing person a crook or just “cowed” or exhibiting his culture’s humility?

  8. Barry

    @ Karen

    “If you waste time worrying about a person in foreign dress when that person does nothing to make one suspicious, then you may miss the ‘good ol’ boy’ right next to you who’s pulling out his box cutter”

    you might- or the person in the foreign dress may have the box cutter as well. They may be working together.

    But in some respects, I think this is missing the point.

    We are all suspicious of things that may be different to us as individuals- whether we admit it or not. Some will never admit it. They are too politically correct to even admit it to themselves thinking if they don’t admit it at all- they are a little more progressive.

    I believe we are better off if we are able to discuss what makes us feel suspicious versus not saying it at all because we are afraid someone will think something bad about us.

    If you can’t admit your suspicions or sterotypical feelings to anyone but yourself, what good does it to admit them at all? Therefore it never gets discussed. No one learns anything. No one can change your mind.


  9. Mark Stewart

    Nobody wants to hear anyone’s stereotypical rantings; as the NPR chief so tactlessly vollyed back at Juan Williams with her “tell it to your shrink” comment.

    It’s not even a slippery slope topic. Even among friends it is such a drag to listen to someone thrash around in such thoughts.

    We all need to rise above our fears – just as we do in every other facet of life. We push forward at work, at home and at play. It should be the same with social interaction.

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