Sunday, February 19, 2006

Rational Bigotry?

One of the puzzling things about certain political and cultural conflicts is how strongly people feel about them. I can understand why some people would prefer that homosexuals not be permitted to marry. It is harder to understand why they regard the issue as enormously important. Similarly for same sex couples adopting. Similarly for polygamy. And similarly—I think the most interesting case of all—for attitudes towards transsexuals, individuals who have undergone a sex change operation. In each case, the obvious question is why A cares so much about what B, or B and C, or even B, C, D, and E are doing.

I have a conjecture about part of the answer.

The world is a complicated place. One way in which we deal with that complication, in law and thought, is by representing a complicated reality with a much simpler model. There are lots of examples:

Some people are more mature than others, in one or another dimension. For many purposes we lump all those differences, along with the continuous range of ages, into two categories—children and adults. Doing it that way makes it a lot easier, in law and in conversation, to deal with issues where maturity matters—at the cost, as with any simplification, of sometimes getting the wrong answer.

If we define gender by genitals, hermaphrodites are both male and female, eunuchs in some sense neither. If we define it by DNA, some apparent males are female, some females male. Some are neither XX nor XY, some both. Nonetheless, we continue to classify people, in the law and inside our heads, as either men or women. Most of the time the simplification fits the reality, occasionally it doesn't.

Someone who does not fit our categories is a problem, not because he is doing anything to us but because his existence makes it harder for us to use our simplified models to make sense of the world. The problem only exists if we are aware of it—XXY genetics existed a century ago, but nobody knew about them. Hermaphrodites existed, and were known to exist, but nobody you knew was a hermaphrodite, or if someone was you didn't know about it, so there was no problem for your day to day attempt to use a simplified map to navigate social space.

The biggest example of this problem, one now more or less over among the people I know, was the breakdown of marriage. It used to be that people could be usefully classified as married or not married, which simplified a good deal of social calculation. As it became increasingly common for couples to openly live together without being married, the classification began to break down. That made it harder to figure out whether you had to invite A to dinner if you invited B, whether you were free to court A, and how to briefly sum up your knowledge of the status of A and B when talking with C.

Transsexuals provide a particularly striking example of the problem. If you knew him as a male and now know her as a female, there is a real problem fitting him/her into your mental picture of the world—a problem that shows up in, among other places, my discomfort with using either gendered adjective. I can see how other people might find similar difficulties in fitting into their heads polygamous families, same sex married couples, children with two mommies, and much else.

I am not, of course, arguing that other people have any obligation to make their lives fit my picture. Maintaining my map of the world is my problem, not theirs—reality has no obligation to conform. But I think the discomfort which comes when reality changes in ways that make obsolete what used to be an adequate set of simplifications provide at least a partial explanation for the strength of the response.


At 5:27 PM, February 19, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting theory, but I doubt it holds much weight. Suppose a new career were invented. Would people get extremely upset trying to explain what the career was in terms of careers already existing? No.

People don't like homosexuals raising children because they feel homosexuals are unnatural, perverted, disgusting, and perhaps mentally ill. It'd be nice if that could be put down to "rational bigotry", but I really don't think it can.

At 2:45 AM, February 20, 2006, Anonymous Stephen Whittington said...

I've been thinking about this all day and I think that it explains part of why bigotry occurs. I also think that, using the same theory, also helps explain another part of bigotry.

Accepting the idea that the world is a complicated place, people seek out a set of beliefs which help simplify it - be it religion or philosophy, catholocism or objectivism. Looked at in this way, there's a second layer of your conjecture.

You say: "Someone who does not fit our categories is a problem, not because he is doing anything to us but because his existence makes it harder for us to use our simplified models to make sense of the world."

That is true for individuals thinking and simplifying. But religion comes with a lot of baggage - which often manifests itself in bigotry. It's not only that something is unusual so they do not wish to accept it. I believe that the existence of things 'unusual' challenges the religion or philosophy itself, and demonstrates it to be simplistic. People don't like the idea that their belief system is simplistic, and so the result is one of two options. You either alter your belief system, or, more likely, you try to change that person, or discriminate against them on the basis of them challenging your beliefs.

In short, it's not only about maintaining your map of your world, but also the theory that enables you to map it.

At 9:15 AM, February 20, 2006, Blogger Thomas said...

Your conjecture is good, as far as it goes, but there are other possibilities. One is the effect of "aberrant" behavior on social cohesion. (For example, my attitude toward my neighbor and the likelihood that I might do him a favor is likely to affected by my neighbor's behavior.) Another possibility is the "slippery slope" effect of legitimating "aberrant" behavior. (For example, if the state loosens divorces laws, couples are less likely to work out their problems and more likely to split, thus fostering a less responsible attitude toward commitments.)

At 10:21 AM, February 20, 2006, Blogger said...

I like this statement by Stephen:

"In short, it's not only about maintaining your map of your world, but also the theory that enables you to map it."

We all model the world around us whether we realize it or not. Many of us outsource this modeling (because it's too costly or time-consuming).

Thus, whenever there comes to light new information that challenges our model, we must a) use our existing model to understand the new information b) challenge the new information as being false/wrong or c) ignore it. Until the issue is resolved, discomfort is felt by the modeler.

By pushing for laws to protect any particular model, one can write off the need to do a), b) or c). An example of this is marijuana use. It's illegal. Many (most?) Americans don't even think about it as an issue because of it's illegality. Because it is illegal, it is wrong. End of story.

Dealing with the complexity that surrounds us is very costly, both emotionally and mentally. Thus, human beings will try to minimize that cost in any way possible. Queue racism, classism, and any other 'ism that categorizes people into groups whereby we can reach answers (that can be right or wrong) quickly with lower transaction costs.

Why else would human beings tend to associate more with those with approximately equal levels of attractiveness, height, intelligence, race, income, etc?

All of this is to say that I think I would agree.

At 10:53 AM, February 20, 2006, Anonymous Iainuki said...

Some people ( would consider your use of the term "hermaphrodite" as impolite. Most prefer the word "intersex."

I suspect that adherence to an inaccurate mental model causes some forms and manifestations of bigotry. Even if nothing else, though, holding to such a model changes a person's meme-ecology in a way that makes it easier for them to hold certain other nasty ideas. I have a hard time terming such bigotry "rational," because it's no more rational than maintaing that Galilean physics must be true even when confronted with the evidence that it doesn't describe the world.

At 12:58 PM, February 20, 2006, Anonymous Siderea said...

As someone above pointed out, the assumption that category violation, per se, is the trigger does not hold in the case of certain categories.

Certain categories are more important to H. sapiens than others. And I mean that in both the objective sense of "important" ("failure to pay attention to this will likely have negative consequences for the organism") and the subjective sense of "important" ("emotionally riveting and highly prioritized").

It should be no surprise that for a sexually reproducing organism, "gender" (i.e. sex) is one of those categories.

Where you state "As it became increasingly common for couples to openly live together without being married, the classification began to break down. That made it harder to figure out whether you had to invite A to dinner if you invited B, whether you were free to court A, and how to briefly sum up your knowledge of the status of A and B when talking with C." you gravely understate the case of just to what an extent human interactions are organized by the sex of the participants.

Humans care about sex differences and gender performance not because of some essential but arbitrarily applied mental rigidity, but because they have deeply in-grained (or in-born) social behaviors which are frustrated or complexified by difficulty in telling who in a population belongs to which mating class, either potential mates or potential rivals.

The social legitimizing of homosexuality causes anxiety because it interrupts and confounds the use of gender performance to classify others as potential mates or potential rivals. The same people who are so disturbed by others' homosexuality also have the strongest negative reaction to other violations of gender performance, such as "unlady-like women" or "pansy men".

This is also why the people who are most emotionally threatened by the legitimizing of homosexuality characterize themselves as "family" oriented. There is a sense that is true: the concerns of mating and reproducing take a central role in their culture and psyche in a way that is not typical of others.

At 11:36 PM, February 20, 2006, Blogger montestruc said...

I disagree with the anonymous poster who said in part "Suppose a new career were invented. Would people get extremely upset trying to explain what the career was in terms of careers already existing?"

I disagree in two ways;

1) Jobs are less threatening that sexual identity shifting. I think that one thing David may be missing is the perhaps unconscious fear that this could happen to me and acting as if the person has a deadly illness. Rationally people do avoid sick people whom they are not close to as a matter of self-preservation. If the "oddness" is of a sexual nature it is seen as biological and perhaps an illness that can be transmitted. A job is not an illness.

2) On the other hand, it seems that some people are threatened by what they do not understand other people’s job qualifications or new (to them) jobs. I can recall having to deal with a city official that wanted to see my qualifications as a “structural engineer” as his rule book required review by a “structural” engineer.. My license as an engineer said “mechanical”, and he wanted it to say “structural” even though the state board in question does not issue such licenses, nor do any universities I am aware of issue degrees with the title “structural” engineer. As a rule a structural engineer is supposed to be by degree either a civil or mechanical or aerospace or marine engineer. All have to have the basic training required. I have seen other examples and I think most readers can think of their own of someone getting all bent out of shape when they do not understand something along those lines.


At 2:03 AM, February 21, 2006, Blogger tim in sydney said...

Hmmm. This reminds me of Joseph Sobran's great definition of "bigot" (see here.) "one who practices sociology without a license."

At 7:28 AM, February 21, 2006, Anonymous Francis said...

Hi, Mr. Friedman;

perhaps the problem should be seen the other way 'round: why do some people try so hard to fit other people in the rationality model?

I don't think people are that rational, and I don't think the rationality hypothesis can get us very far outside the day-to-day simple choices that we have to do. It so happens that our brains was made firstly to help reproduction and then, as an aside, cope with (1) social problems and (2) easy down-to-earth problems like building a mouse trap.

When such an apparatus is moved to a world of very different social rules (starting by monogamy, extended care by the father, etc.) it is only natural that it behaves "strangely".

At 9:51 AM, February 21, 2006, Anonymous Bryan Eastin said...

I actually doubt that cognitive dissonance has much to do with it. Human beings seem to be wired by default to hate those that differ from their own social group. The less interaction you've had with a certain class of people the more likely you are to hate them. These hatreds are played upon and reinforced by a variety of institutions including political and religious ones. I think the focus on sexuality just reflects most people's and many religion's fixation on sex.

At 2:26 PM, February 21, 2006, Anonymous albatross said...

I don't buy the "you break my categories" model of bigotry at all.

One interesting question: Why are some people willing to accept a cost to themselves to enforce their moral beliefs on third parties? That might be something as nasty as wanting to murder Jews, or as good as wanting to free slaves. And you can see "selfless" acts in both those causes.

The person who refuses to buy something because it was made by blacks (and he wants to support whites) is making a kind of decision that has something in common with the one where he refuses to buy something made by slave labor because he thinks slavery is evil. In one case, he's serving an evil cause, in the other a good cause. But isn't it the same underlying process, somehow?

At 8:24 PM, February 21, 2006, Anonymous C A Cole said...

I feel that some posters misunderstand "rationality" in this context. It is not that bigotry is particularly beneficial to the individual or society, which I believe is what some people believe must follow from rationality. It is also not the view that individuals are programmable automatons.

Rather rationality is defined as making choices that achieve a goal or behaving as if this is the case.

Here the goal is understanding one's social space, possibly with the least confusion, anguish, and other mental factors people usually want to avoid. The universe is a complicated place, so the first choice the person makes is selecting a simplified model of human class and interaction. Since all situations the person may encounter will not fit into the model, the person must make additional choices when faced with anomalous circumstances: make the situation taboo or adopt a new model. It is probably difficult to adopt a new model, especially when the old model tends to be effective. When devising a new model is more painful than the consequences of maintaining the old one, the person will rationally choose "bigotry."

An unrelated anecdote, but one which may lend support to the argument, concerns same sex marriage. Most of the people I know who are under the age of thirty are generally supportive of same sex marriage. Granted, this is not a random sample. However, nearly all the people I know over the age of thirty oppose same sex marriage. In conversation, most of the people in this group explain that "it just seems wrong," or "I don't mind if they're together, but they shouldn't call it marriage." I suspect that those of us who grew up in the 90s are more comfortable with same sex marraige because the discussion of homosexuality was not taboo when we were forming our social models.

At 11:48 AM, February 22, 2006, Anonymous albatross said...

If the "you break my categories" theory of bigotry is right, it seems like we need to figure out why:

a. There are many other cases which break your categories, and are a little funny looking, but which don't trigger the same kind of hostility as gays. For example, half-siblings, step-parents, and adoptive kids/siblings are all intermediate cases in very fundamental human categories. Similarly, bilingual people break some categories, but don't seem to elicit enormous hostility. Religion is another pretty fundamental category, but most religions have their equivalent of "Easter and Christmas" Catholics and fallen-away Catholics, as well as corruptable priests. And things like funny-looking mixed-breed dogs don't elicit any hostility at all. My point is that most of these category busters don't actually cause much anger, which makes me suspect that category-busting isn't a major factor in hostility to gays, transsexuals, etc.

b. Apparently equivalent category-breakers elicit different responses. In particular, it seems like gay men trigger a lot more hostility than lesbians, and transsexuals trigger still more hostility. Biracial people seem to trigger a lot less hostility than interracial couples, which is the opposite of what your theory would predict. (This isn't based on any hard data, it's just my impression.)

c. My impression is that the acceptability of gay men varies a lot across cultures. That seems like it wouldn't happen if the category-busting theory were true.

At 5:24 PM, February 24, 2006, Blogger LetMeSpellItOutForYou said...

Sight unseen, I object strongly to using the word "bigotry" to describe adverse reaction to polygamy. A more neutral term would be "taboo." To be bigoted is to hold a strong belief counter to evidence, but we have enough experience with polygamous societies to know they are undesirable, trending towards oligarchy, slavery, and war.

At 6:39 PM, February 25, 2006, Anonymous Nancy Lebovitz said...

Imho, a major motive for aggressive bigotry is that anger can feel good. It can give an energy surge and a sense of focus. Bigotry is a very handy way for people to keep themselves angry.

Your theory about complexity handling is plausible and might cover some cases, but it doesn't do a good job for way some bigotries are stable for centuries.

At 6:41 PM, February 25, 2006, Anonymous Nancy Lebovitz said...

Nancy Lebovitz here--I thought I'd filled out everything I needed to have my name appear on the comment about anger.

At 1:11 PM, February 27, 2006, Blogger Ex-Tranny said...

Libertarians have always had a tough time with children. Social conservatism is easy to understand: children should be raised by their (biological) parents. Another way to put it is this: once you bring a child into the world, that child's interests come ahead of your own.

That is social conservatives oppose cohabittating singles, gay marriage, polygamy, no-fault divorce, and sperm banks. They all involve children being raised by something other than their two (biological) parents.

Maybe being raised by your (biological) parents is overrated. But then criticize social conservatives from those grounds. Anything less is begging the question.

On a more anecdotal level, I am a social conservative because of the Golden Rule. My pmom got a no-fault divorce out of a low-conflict marriage (this is the norm with no-fault divorce) and I didn't like it. If I didn't like it for myself then I am morally bound to oppose it.

At 1:55 PM, February 27, 2006, Anonymous albatross said...

Oppose it in the sense of "Tell people that divorce hurts kids and they shouldn't do it without a very good reason," or in the sense of "Pass laws to make it very hard to get divorced"? The two are really different, right? There may be excellent reasons why the first meaning doesn't imply the second.

At 5:18 PM, February 27, 2006, Blogger Ex-Tranny said...

I can see the libertarian outrage: "You favor laws to protect children?! You statist!"

But if libertarians are ever going to become mainstream, then protecting children is going to be an issue that they will have to address, much like finding private means to provision public goods, such as dominant assurance contracts.

In the case of no-fault divorce the solution is trivial, privatizing marriage would effectively abolish no-fault divorce. No-fault divorce is unilateral divroce - one partner can abandon the other at any time for any reason. For men it has the added negative that you will hardly ever see your kids, and you will get hit up for child support for the next 18 years of your life. With the markets people would opt for a marriage contract in which you had to negotiate permission with your partner before exiting the contract: if the woman wants to leave and his no legitimate grievance (abuse, adultery) she would have to sacrifice custody and pay for some child support in order to get the man's permission to end the contract (vice versa for the man leaving his wife for someone younger).

But while free markets can keep families together in some cases, they do not always succeed. That gets us back to those nasty complicated cases that as a social conservative I do not like: gay marriage and polygamy.

Gay marriage effectively grants sanction to bring a child into the world with the premeditated desire of separating it from one of its parents (a sperm donor). The child will be raised by one biological and one non-biological parents. As a child raised in a stepfamily I can personally attest to the fact that stepfamilies are not all bad - but that does not mean that it is morally correct to deliberately put the child into one.

Polygamy has other problems. One wife will inevitably be higher status. It might be the youngest and prettiest wife. It might be the first and oldest wife - the one the man originally fell in love with. But one thing is clear: the father has a finite amount of time and money and now the various wives are pitted against each other to secure as much of that time for their own children. It is not likely that you will consistently get an equitable distribution.

There are other problems with polygamy. High presige men acquire multiple wives, but they can not keep them all satisfied, so cheating is rampant in polygamous societies (read about female farming and polygamy in Africa). This results in the father being even less interested in his children because he can not be sure that they are his. His loyalties remain with his mother's family since he is sure that he has blood ties that way.

Polygamy has even more negative externalities that go beyond the scope of children's rights. For every multiple wife there is a man with no wife, and men without wives have no reason to settle into society and plan for the future. So the society needs ways to kill off large numbers of young men or face severe internal strife. This has occassionally been a problem with Islam.

But hey, it could just be that as a social conservative I'm not happy complicated things ;)

At 7:19 PM, February 27, 2006, Anonymous albatross said...

I haven't seen much evidence that most people would opt for more restrictive marriage contracts in the way you're imagining. From a quick search on the web, it looks like covenant marriages aren't too popular with couples intending to wed, and my impression is that few couples spell out how the end is to come in a prenuptual agreement.

Now, I'm basically for a free market in marriage contracts, modulo rules to make sure any kids who come along are treated properly. But I think it might be wishful thinking to imagine that the free market will make the decision you'd like.

At 6:09 AM, February 28, 2006, Blogger Ex-Tranny said...

I firmly believe in continued state involvement in marriage because the market will not always provide a marriage contract that protects children, as I explained in my last post about polygamy and gay marriage.

I do suspect that free markets would eliminate the worst abuses of no-fault divorce. I can't believe that a man, given other options, would choose to give his wife the power to arbitrarily leave him for no reason *and* take his kids away (men almost never get custody) *and* make him pay child support for the next 18 years. Here is a good article on about that topic and privatized marriage.

But since I do favor state involvement, simply abolishing no-fault divorce works for me. Either method is fine.

At 1:26 AM, March 03, 2006, Anonymous Bryan Eastin said...

Ex-tranny, your arguments seem to proceed from your conclusions.

What criterion do you use to judge whether the typical child is "better off" in one kind of family or another?

The points you present are quite anecdotal. For comparison, here are some sketchy arguments that yield opposing conclusions:

1. Many "normal" pregnancies are unwanted, while those requiring sperm donors or surrogate mothers are not only desired but paid for. It seems reasonable to expect that people willing to spend money and effort to acquire children will be more concerned with their welfare, and thus better parents, than people whose contraception failed.

2. Infidelity is rampant (pretty much everywhere) in traditional paired marriages. One might expect that the dishonesty associated with adultery to be more damaging than the irregularity associated with some less restricted form of marriage.

3. High prestige men will typically have better access to resources needed by mothers and children. Societies in which these men father more children will result in a larger fraction of children whose needs are well funded.

4. To be really good at something takes practice and devotion. Maybe children ought to be raised in groups by professional parents.

5. Regarding tough divorce laws, it is quite possible that the discontent associated with being the child of an unhappy marriage is greater than that associated with being a child whose biological parents are divorced.

I happen to agree that harems seem like a destructive social institution, but neither of us has any convincing reason to think this is inherently true. In complete honesty, I would be forced to admit that this feeling preceded any actual thought on the issue.

At 10:40 PM, March 07, 2006, Blogger David Friedman said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 10:41 PM, March 07, 2006, Blogger David Friedman said...

Some responses to ex-Tranny:

1. "This results in the father being even less interested in his children because he can not be sure that they are his."

No longer true with modern paternity testing.

2. "For every multiple wife there is a man with no wife,"

I don't know about Africa, but in the historical Muslim societies I am familiar with, a relatively small fraction of the men were polygamous. In the U.S. at present, I believe there is a surplus of unmarried women, so polygyny might result in fewer single individuals, not more. More generally, in a society where individuals control their own marriage, a surplus of women will tend to produce polygyny, a surplus of men polyandry, for fairly straightforward economic reasons--in both cases reducing the number of involuntary singles.

3. Male homosexual couples that want children adopt them--and are no less related to their children than other adoptive parents. So on your argument you should either oppose all adoption or support male homosexual marriage.

4. Female homosexual couples can--I gather sometimes do--inseminate one partner with sperm from the father or brother of the other. The result is a child 3/4 as closely related to the couple as the child of an ordinary heterosexual couple--a little more than 3/4 if you allow for the possibility of false paternity in the latter case in the days before paternity testing.

5. The fact that a couple is willing to go to some trouble to obtain a child, whether by artificial insemination or adoption, is some evidence that they will care for that child.

At 3:01 PM, March 09, 2006, Blogger Eric said...

The argument from complexity is intriguing. It is similar to the Smith-Merrill (?) argument for why there has been a limited number of ways in which you can hold property, in contrast to the extreme flexibility of contracts. They argue that if someone comes up with an odd new kind of property, everyone else has to worry that they aren't buying what they think they are buying, and transaction costs rise.


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