Categories are Approximations

Categories Are Approximations

My last post was on the human tendency to put things into categories and how that can cause problems when things don’t fit nicely into the categories we have created. We like to define and group things based on shared characteristics, but those characteristics can have undefined edge cases. This isn’t a big deal when we are classifying types of mushrooms or shoes, but it can be a problem when we are classifying people and when we extend particular qualities of a group of people to everyone perceived as part of that group.
 
 
This post takes the danger in that idea a step further. In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker writes, “people tend to moralize their categories, assigning praiseworthy traits to their allies and condemnable ones to their enemies.” We create groups and view them as binaries. If we step back, we realize this doesn’t make sense when evaluating people, but nevertheless, we do it. We view an entire group of people as good or bad based on how we categorize them and based on a few salient traits of the category.
 
 
Pinker continues, “people tend to essentialize groups. As children, they tell experimenters that a baby whose parents have been switched at birth will speak the language of her biological rather than her adoptive parents.” When we get older we realize this is not the case, but it hints at a general disposition that humans have. We don’t focus highly on environment and contextual factors for people. We assume that essential characteristics of the group they belong to, whether or not those characteristics are actually valid, apply to every member, even if members are separated from the group and placed in a new context.
 
 
Categorizing people can end up with us placing people in a specific frame of reference that denies their individuality and humanity. We see people as inherently geared toward certain dispositions, simply because they share characteristics with other people we assume to have such dispositions. From this categorizing and these harmful tendencies follow xenophobia and racism. We wish to be seen as an individual ourselves, but we put others into categories and judge them to be inherently good or bad. We assume good people are all like us, and that all people like us are bad. Conversely, we assume all people unlike us are in some way bad, or that all bad people are unlike us. This oversimplified thought process fuels polarization and a host of negative thinking shortcuts that we have to overcome to live in a peaceful, equitable, and cooperative society.
Self Determination & Ethnocultural Nation States

Self Determination & Ethnocultural Nation States

Modern people living in WEIRD cultures value consistency in the thoughts, behaviors, and actions of individuals. Joseph Henrich argues this is a strange phenomenon of WEIRD societies and that it hasn’t been a central feature of many cultures throughout history. One of the challenges of living in a society that deems you a hypocrite if you are not internally consistent on all issues is that we frequently run into paradoxical situations where we simultaneously uphold values that directly contradict. In the United States the most clear example is the contradiction between liberty and democratic governance. Democratic governance entails the creation of laws which reduce some personal liberties in order to defend other liberties.
 
 
Another example of paradoxes where our desires run into each other, as Steven Pinker notes in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, is between self-determination and the idea of an ethnocultural nation state. The challenges created when these two ideas bump into each other are fueling heated debates and worsening refugee crises across the globe.
 
 
In the Untied States, and many Western European countries, we believe in ideas of self-determination. We believe that individuals have the power to improve their own lives by working hard, making smart decisions, and – if necessary – by moving to a new place to start over. The history of the United States is exactly that, a history of people packing up and starting over somewhere new. Whether it was the pilgrims on the East Coast or the countless people who successively moved west, the United States is defined by the idea of self-determination and moving to areas of opportunity.
 
 
But what happens when the people who exercise this self-determination and move to areas of opportunity are culturally distinct from the areas to which they move? That is the question that Pinker explores in his book. Regarding the differences of the people and the landscape in a nation, Pinker writes, “unlike features of a landscape like trees and mountains, people have feet. They move to places where the opportunities are best, and soon invite their friends and relatives to join. This demographic mixing turns the landscape into a fractal, with minorities inside minorities inside minorities.”
 
 
This is where our paradox arises. We want people to be free. We want to uphold ideas of self-determination. We want people to be able to move to areas of opportunity and start new lives. We don’t want people to be stuck in one place, dependent on government assistance and charity. But, historically the United States and Western European nations have demonstrated that we don’t want ethnographic minorities to be the ones who are self-determinant in this way. We want our countries, our states, and our cities to remain ethnoculturally cohesive groups (I don’t support this view, but some modern political groups certainly do).
 
 
Not all people share this mindset, but many do, and it is a large component of populist movements in the United States and Europe. The choice that many people seem to advocate for is limiting self-determination of people who do not belong to the ethnocultural majority. A choice that is easily pointed at as racist and hypocritical. The other option for the people who dislike the ethnocultural change is to uphold self-determination, but to give up the idea of an ethnocultural state. To me this seems to be the more reasonable choice, but for many, the fear of losing their group identity is powerful.
 
 
Ultimately, what we should recognize is that our modern nation states, the political units we generally view as ethnocultural groups, conflict with ideas of self-determination. If we want to uphold self-determination and make it easier for people to shape their own lives, then we may end up losing ethnocultural nation states.
Conflating Nations & People

Conflating Nations & People

“The term Nation or People came to stand for the individual men, women, and children who made up that nation, and then the political leaders came to stand for the nation,” writes Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. Conflating nations and people is part of Pinker’s explanation for the two World Wars of the 20th century. Humanity has been gradually pacifying throughout history, but the power of nations and the conflation of nations, people, and their leaders put enormous power and ultimately destructive potential in the hands of a few men. Pinker continues, “a ruler, a flag, an army, a territory, a language, came to be cognitively equated with millions of flesh-and-blood individuals.”
 
 
We are good at losing track of the distinctions between individuals and the groups those individuals form. We do this with nations, we do it with sports teams, and we do it with corporations. We endow these non-human entities with the rights of the humans that form them. The entities themselves, someone like Yuval Noah Harari would argue, are entirely fictitious, but still, we treat them at times like a real human that we have formed intimate connections with. We easily find ourselves within a group and easily lose our sense of our individual self. When a group prospers we feel as though we have prospered, as any sports fan knows. When a group is threatened, we act as though we ourselves are threatened.
 
 
Pinker argues that these dynamics were in play in the 20th century. Globally, humans committed themselves to a nationalistic ethos which rulers were able to harness in ways that propelled an otherwise pacifying humanity into calamitous wars.
 
 
Today we see problems from corporations that have been given the rights of individuals and exercise those rights to further their self-interest at the expense of actual human beings in political arenas. We have not found a way to think about the groups to which we belong without treating them, or conflating them, as human. We still see ourselves as intimately tied to the imaginary groups we form when we coordinate with others.
Steven Pinker On Morality

Steven Pinker on Morality

According to Steven Pinker, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, morality comes from our ability to reason and our need to cooperate together. Without interactions and dependence on other human beings, we wouldn’t have a sense of morals. We would only have our individual self-interest. However, humans live in complex social groups within complex social communities and we have to live and work together for survival and general life satisfaction. As Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler argue in The Elephant in the Brain, social and political tribes drove the evolution and need for large rational brains, which Pinker argues allow us to reason from a point of mutual unselfishness, ultimately creating our ideas of morality.
 
 
To demonstrate, Pinker writes, “if I appeal to you to do something that affects me – to get off my foot, or not stab me for the fun of it, or to save my child from drowning – then I can’t do it in a way that privileges my interests over yours.” All humans are self-interested, which conflicts with our social lives. We all want to act in our own self-interested ways, but we have to cooperate with others and work with others to get what we desire or need for survival. Therefore, you must demonstrate that your interests go beyond simply your own self-interest in order to get people to respect you, respect your interests, and to cooperate with you. Pinker continues, “I have to state my case in a way that would force me to treat you in kind. I can’t act as if my interests are special just because I’m me and you’re not.” To work together we have to find ways in which our interests align. I may have to pay you to do some physical effort that I don’t want to do. I may have to agree to respect your property if I want you to respect my property. I may have to give up some level of individual rights if I don’t want you to abridge liberties of mine. “Mutual unselfishness is the only way we can simultaneously pursue our interests,” Pinker writes.
 
 
What Pinker argues, flowing from this discussion of mutual unselfishness, self-interests, and social cooperation, is that our morals are not given to us by a supernatural power and that our morals do not exist separate from humans. Morals are created through human rationality and through our ability to recognize that we have individual feelings and preferences, and therefore other people who are like us probably have the same capacity for all the feelings, emotions, preferences, and desires that we have. Our morals exist because we have to work together, to interact in social groups and organizations, and to rely upon institutions to order our relationships and collective efforts.
 
 
Pinker writes, “Morality, then, is not a set of arbitrary regulations dictated by a vengeful deity and written down in a book; nor is it the custom of a particular culture or tribe. It is a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives and the opportunity the world provides for positive-sum games.” By interchangeability of perspectives Pinker is referring to the human ability to consider that other people have thoughts and feelings and the human ability to imagine or adopt other perspectives. Positive-sum games are situations where everyone is made better through cooperation. By all working together and combining inert pieces of material, we can create a house which which shelter us, keep us warm in the winter and shaded in the summer, and will give us a place to meet and hang out. The total value of the house is greater than the individual value of each component piece. Much of our world is structured around positive-sum interactions that occur when we cooperate through mutual unselfishness. Our morals derive from our ability to reason and help us harness these positive-sum moments. But it all comes back to our desire to pursue our own self interests while having to compromise as part of a larger social group.
Racism & Culturism: Beliefs in Western Superiority

Racism & Culturism: Beliefs in Western Superiority

I have spent a decent amount of time thinking about the racial disparities we see in American society. I think there is pretty clear evidence that we generally underrate the historical importance of blatant racism and discrimination in the outcomes of people’s lives today, and that has created substantial racial challenges that many people fail to acknowledge. Red-lining had a serious impact of people’s ability to build wealth through home ownership. Andre Perry at Brookings has argued that black business to this day are still undervalued due to segregation, difficulties in accessing the best locations, and continuing implicit racism. Issues which seem like they belong in or only took place in the past still have influences that linger today.
 
 
Many people discount these historical factors and turn their argument toward the nebulous construction of “culture” when explaining racial disparities in the United States. This feels uncomfortably close to blatant racism to me, but is hard to argue against, especially with people who are smart and wise enough to avoid explicitly racist and discriminatory language. It is not hard to hide arguments that may be racist in nature behind a veil of cultural critiques. Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens suggest that this has been an important aspect in the ideology of many Western societies. He writes,
 
 
“Racist theories enjoyed prominence and respectability for many generations, justifying the Western conquest of the world. Eventually, in the late twentieth century, just as the Western empires crumbled, racism became anathema among scientists and politicians alike. But the belief in Western superiority did not vanish. Instead, it took on new forms. Racism was replaced by culturism. Today’s elites usually justify superiority in terms of historical differences between cultures rather than biological differences between races. We no longer say it’s in their blood. We say it’s in their culture.”
 
 
I think that what is key to recognize is that both racism and culturism is used to explain and demonstrate the superiority of one group over another. That means both become a justification for discrimination and disparities. Racial discrimination and disparities are dismissed through a lens of culturism. After-all, we are accepting that black, brown, or other people could be just as good as white people (or whoever is in the majority) but they simply choose not to be as good for peculiar cultural reasons. Culturalism in this way seems to be a form of supercharged racism with a shield.
 
 
However, the result is the same. One group is celebrated over another with discrimination and disparities justified and even praised. Culture is a broad term, and it is hard to argue against. It is hard to see where modern cultures have roots in historical inequalities and discrimination. It is hard to understand why cultural practices that deviate from – or deliberately eschew – the dominant culture persist when you yourself are part of the dominant culture and have found success through such practices. It is easy to use culture as a shield for arguing that you and your group is better than another, even when your argument is essentially a lightly cloaked racist argument.
Imperialism's Influence as Humanity Shifted Away from Ethnic Exclusionism

Imperialism’s Influence as Humanity Shifted Away from Ethnic Exclusionism

I have written a lot about our tendency to view the world through a lens of in-groups and out-groups. We look for people who are like us and form coalitions and groups with those individuals. We exclude those who are not like us. The inclusion and exclusion factors can be skin color, cultural customs, languages, favorite sports teams, and other trivial factors. In the United States, this in-group and out-group sorting has often resulted in segregated neighborhoods and schools, was present at the founding of the nation with slavery enmeshed in the cultural and economic practices of the time, and can still be seen in the hiring practices of many modern companies and organizations. With at least one area of in-group versus out-group sorting, however, humanity generally seems to be moving in a direction to be less accepting. Sorting by ethnicity is becoming more taboo and less tolerated in politics and workplaces.
 
 
This shift away from ethnic exclusionism truly began with large scale religions that saw all people as children of a deity. When all people could be brought under the same religious tent, there was a reason to break down some of the in-group and out-group barriers between people of different ethnic backgrounds.  People could be proselytized, expanding who was part of the in-group, at least from a religious perspective.
 
 
Imperialism also played a role in shifting humanity away from ethnic exclusionism. Once people could potentially be brought under the same religious tent it was not too far of a jump to believe that people could be brought under the same political tent. Imperialism certainly wasn’t perfect and had innumerable downstream consequences, but can be seen as a stepping stone along a pathway of reduced ethnic exclusionism. Yuval Noah Harari points out the marginally inclusive nature of imperialism in his book Sapiens:
 
 
“Imperial ideology … has tended to be inclusive and all-encompassing. Even though it has often emphasized racial and cultural differences between rulers and ruled, it has still recognized the basic unity of the entire world, the existence of a single set of principles governing all places and times, and the mutual responsibilities of all human beings.”
 
 
Imperialism came with an inherent first class and second class citizenship framing, but it did bring people under the same political banner. Rather than seeing others as barbarians who could only be conquered or eliminated as the dominant group spread, imperialism recognized a value and a shared (if unequal) sense of humanity between people.
 
 
I hope that our world can continue to eliminate ethnic exclusionism. I don’t know if doing so means we simply become more tolerant of differences or if it means that differences disappear as more cultures merge and unify, but I hope that humanity moves in a direction where all humans are seen as connected and part of a grand human experiment. Religions brought people under the same religious tents, imperialism brought people under the same political tent, and I hope we can continue to push toward bringing people under the same tent that values the humanity of everyone. 
In-Groups, Out-Groups, and Responsibility

In-Groups, Out-Groups, & Responsibility

There is evidence to suggest that in the Untied States our culture is becoming more individualistic and less collective. This has interesting impacts for how we see and think about our responsibility toward each other. A more individualistic society may say that the best way for us to be responsible for the good of society is to be the best that we can possibly be. We are responsible for how healthy we eat, responsible for how much we contribute to economic productivity, and responsible for how good of a role model we are for young people. A more collective society may think that we are more responsible for whether other people are able to eat healthily, whether others are able to find productive employment, and whether there are sufficient activities for young people to participate in to be around good role models.
 
 
This contrast is interesting because it highlights a distinction between who we are responsible for. In the most extreme of individualistic cultures we may not be responsible for anyone other than ourselves, not even for our family members. In the most extreme collective cultures, we may be responsible for the wellbeing of the entire universe.
 
 
In the book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari suggests that in reality most human cultures generally end up in some place of feeling responsibility for themselves and for an in-group to which the individual belongs. He writes, “evolution has made Homo sapiens, like other social mammals, a xenophobic creature. Sapiens instinctively divide humanity into two parts, we and they. We are people like you and me, who share our language, religion, and customs. We are all responsible for each other, but not responsible for them.” The argument is that evolution would not support the most individualistic society, because the single individual would not be able to pass on their genes as well as an individual supported by a strong tribe with social responsibilities among the in-group. Simultaneously, a group that was too collective in responsibility would be spread too thin to foster evolutionary advantages in terms of who felt responsible to support others.
 
 
But there is still a lot of flexibility in terms of how this personal versus group responsibility manifests. Humans seem to discern between people like them who they feel responsible for and people dissimilar to themselves who they do not feel responsible for. It is interesting how in the United States we are becoming more individualistic, seeing ourselves first as responsible for our individual self and less responsible for the collective while the world becomes more globalized and dependent on everyone – as our current supply chain issues demonstrates. Somehow, it seems, the challenge for us is to expand the scope of who we are viewed as being responsible for while maintaining a reason to still be responsible for ourselves as individuals. Perhaps this isn’t possible, perhaps it simply layers more responsibility over the individual, but as we continue to globalize and become more globally dependent on each other, we have to find a way to understand that we are responsible for others, even if evolution appears to have made us xenophobic and hasn’t given us a sense of responsibility for people who seem different from us.
Us Versus Them

A Decline in Us Versus Them Thinking?

Homo sapiens evolved to think of people as divided into us and them. Us was the group immediately around you, whoever you were, and them was everyone else,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens. Humans evolved in small tribes, and if you have ever been part of a small club, you know that your small group can adopt a number of distinguishing quirks. Whether it is the name your group adopts, where your group chooses to meet up, or what tv show everyone in your group happens to like, small and random factors can become important distinguishing markers of your group. Larger factors can also become dominant distinguishing factors. Say you are part of a small running team whose goal is to win a big race. Your group is going to have a different culture, attitude, and expectation on individuals compared to a group that just wants to finish the race. Or imagine you are part of a quilting group in the Midwest. Your quilting group may be more interested in very different style than a quilting group meeting in south central Los Angeles. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine (or perhaps stereotype is more accurate) the Midwest group including country song lines on their quilts while the group from LA wrote, “sí se puede” on their quilts.
 
 
The small tribes our ancestors evolved within probably varied as much as the running teams and quilting groups I imagined above. With so many small differences and large differences possible, each tribe became unique, especially if they didn’t have a large amount of interaction with other tribes. Slowly, over time, groups grew, multiplied, and had more opportunities to interact. Initially, their differences would have been incredibly obvious, and the us versus them mindset would have been front and center. Two ancient tribes meeting would have been like our competitive and participatory running teams meeting each other on race day. Or like our Midwest and South Central LA quilting groups sitting next to each other at a restaurant before a quilting convention. They would have recognized their similarities, but their differences would have stood out as much or even more than their similarities. It would have been easy to fall into in-group and out-group thinking, considering the in-group to be the correct way to approach running or quilting (or being human) and the out-group to be erroneous, dangerous, or just strange. Luckily for us, humans have adapted beyond us versus them thinking (to some extent) to enable us to have cooperative and relatively peaceful modern cities, countries, and even global governance and development organizations.
 
 
Harari continues, “Merchants, conquerors, and prophets were the first people who managed to transcend the binary evolutionary division, us vs them, and to foresee the potential unity of humankind.” At the end of the day, the quilting groups can trade materials, ideas, and techniques. They can engage in economic transactions and become united, and slightly less in-group versus out-group oriented through trade. The fast running team could recruit a couple of the strong runners from the non-competitive team, effectively conquering the slow team and leaving the slowest of the slow without a team to continue running with, uniting the two teams through conquest (and eliminating some from the sport which isn’t necessarily great). Both groups, our runners and quilters, could also find themselves motivated by prophets.  Our quilter groups could find that they both read the same quilting magazine or follow the same quilters on Instagram. Our running groups could be equally inspired by the Olympics and could find that they all participate on the same running message boards on letsrun.com. Even beyond intra-group unification, the quilters and runners could be connected on a larger scale by all using the same social media channel to coordinate their events and activities or all traveling to the same place for events. Throughout human history, all of these examples, Harari argues, have occurred, bringing people closer together and slowly but surely reducing our us versus them mindset and creating more space for us to be similar even if we are still unique. We seem to default to seeing the differences in others and closing in around the groups we identify with, but other factors continue to unite us with other groups, expanding the circle of who is us and reducing who is them.
Cultural Agglomeration

Cultural Agglomoration

During my undergraduate studies at the University of Nevada, Reno I had a Peninsular Medieval Literature class focused on early Spanish literature of the Iberian Peninsula. Today, the Iberian Peninsula contains two sovereign countries, and Spain contains four dominant sub-cultures. But in the past, the Peninsula had many different tribal cultures separated geographically and separated in terms of how they interacted with outsiders. Over time, through trade, conquest, and other means, the tribes coalesced to form the starting blocks that became Portugal, Spain, and the minor sub-cultures that exist within the countries.
 
 
This pattern of cultural agglomeration has been common throughout human history. At least since the Agrarian Revolution, living in larger tribes has been advantageous for humans. The evolution and growth of our brains and social institutions has created an environment that favors larger numbers. Consequentially, human societies and cultures have been on a pathway toward coalescence. As Yuval Noah Harari writes in his book Sapiens, “Over the millennia, small, simple cultures gradually coalesce into bigger and more complex civilizations, so that the world contains fewer and fewer mega-cultures, each of which is bigger and more complex.” Harari acknowledges that this is a generalization, and that even mega-cultures maintain sub-cultures and smaller segments that may break apart, but the trend seems to hold with dominant institutions taking root across the smaller sub-cultures.
 
 
Humans originally evolved within small tribes. The brains of our earliest ancestors did not have the capability to maintain large social groups, and cultural evolution had not provided humanity with institutions that could maintain large groups. The earliest humans, likely similar to ape groups of today, could only maintain social cohesion among so many members before the group broke apart. The evolution of Homo Sapiens set humanity on a new path where the human brain could support ever larger and more complex social organizations, ultimately favoring larger cultures and more complex cultural agglomeration for a host of reasons that are beyond the scope of this post.
Pollution & Purity

Pollution & Purity

“Throughout history, and in almost all societies, concepts of pollution and purity have played a leading role in enforcing social and political divisions and have been exploited by numerous ruling classes to maintain their privileges,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens.
 
 
Humans are amazingly good at identifying the in-groups and out-groups to which  they belong or do not belong. We are also capable of incredible acts of in-group kindness and generosity as well as out-group nastiness and unfairness. I think that JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books can be read as an example of our incredibly powerful in-group versus out-group nature, and within those stories we can also see how purity and pollution play a role in how we understand our in-groups relative to our out-groups.
 
 
In the books, an evil and powerful wizard, the son of a magical witch and non-magical (muggle) man, attempts to rule the world on the premise that magical individuals are inherently superior than non-magical individuals. Purebloods, those whose family line is entirely magical rather than half-bloods or mud-bloods, those whose family line includes muggles or is entirely muggle, are seen as superior and more valuable. Mud-bloods and half-bloods are viewed by the evil wizard and his supporters (and tacitly accepted by many characters) as somehow polluted, or at best diluted. That becomes the basis for out-group hostilities, biases, discrimination, and general nastiness.
 
 
Harry Potter may be a fiction, but the books reflect real world struggles that do take place between arbitrary groups and real world discrimination that occurs based on appearance, social class, talent and skill, religion, and other factors. The United States was founded as a country that discriminated against black people because of the color of their skin and their seemingly savage or backward tribal lifestyles in Africa (and also because white plantation owners stood to benefit from the free labor and exploitation of captured Africans). People born with mixed race parents were called mulatto, and were quite literally seen as less pure than people born to white parents. Ability, skill, and intelligence did not differ in a material way between black slaves and white slaveowners, but in-group and out-group dynamics founded a country based on an imagined hierarchy and real world discrimination between white and black people – a hierarchy and system of discrimination that was legally upheld and perpetuated long after slavery ended.
 
 
Other countries have had similar challenges. In India, a caste system was built almost entirely on ideas of purity. A certain segment of the population was referred to (and still is  to some extent) as “untouchables” for fear of contamination. This group was (and still is) isolated and outcast within the larger society and the results of the discrimination shown to such people has later been use to justify the unequal treatment they receive.
 
 
In some ways fears of pollution and desires for purity are rooted in biology. Pigs can carry dangerous parasites that can infect humans. For early Jews – before sanitary cooking methods were developed, dietary restrictions possibly helped ensure there was less parasite and disease transmission. Isolating sick individuals, people with sores, or people who were hired or charged with handling dead bodies, possibly helped reduce disease transmission among early humans. However, from these reasonable precautions came the biases, fears, and unjust discrimination which became part of our in-group and out-group dynamics and ultimately contributed to the ideas of pure ruling classes and polluted lower classes. Something that was biologically prudent took on a narrative that was exploited and abused over time for political ends.
 
 
When we sense ourselves being fearful of ideas of pollution, whether it is genetic, racial, sanitary, or other forms of pollution, we should try to be aware of our thoughts and feelings. We should try to recognize if we are simply acting out in-group versus out-group biases and prejudices, or if we do have real health and sanitary concerns. If the latter is the case, we should find ways to uphold health and safety while minimizing and reducing bias and discrimination as much as possible.