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Sexist? Bigoted? Aren’t we all? | Oliver Burkeman


You’ll recall, I assume, the ancient riddle about the father and son rushed to casualty after a car crash, where the surgeon, taking one look at the boy, declares, “I can’t operate on him, he’s my son!” As a way of making a point about sexism, this doesn’t really work any more: the twist or “solution” to the riddle (how is this possible?) is meant to be that the surgeon is his mother – but as many a smart aleck has noted, why not his other father?

Still, there are echoes of that puzzle in a new study from researchers at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, involving scenarios in which people were asked to guess the sex of someone described as a surgeon. The upshot: when participants heard about some third party, “Person X”, jumping to the conclusion that a surgeon must be male, they judged them to be a sexist bigot. But when presented with a similar question themselves, they did exactly the same.

The harsh take on this is that we’re terrible hypocrites, itching to condemn others as bigots while secretly no less bigoted ourselves. Then again, since it’s a fact that more surgeons are men than women, maybe we’re just being realistic. In that case, why be so judgmental about Person X, who might simply be doing the same? The intriguing finding here isn’t about sexism, but how readily we assume bad faith in others. However noble or ignoble our own judgments, we’re extremely eager to conclude that other people’s are worse.

One way to untangle this is to see that there are two clashing rationales at play, which the researchers call “moral” and “statistical”. The moral rationale rightly holds that men and women are equally capable of surgery, and it isn’t crazy to want to be the kind of person whose instinctive assumptions reflect that moral stance. But the statistical rationale rightly holds that, as things stand, more surgeons are men – and it isn’t inherently sexist to make judgments on that basis.

The trick is not confusing the two. But we chronically muddle them; for example, by letting our moral positions skew our statistical judgments. A few years back, researchers devised an experiment involving imaginary situations in which a mother left her child alone in a car, asking respondents to judge the danger to the child. That’s a statistical matter, but morality prevailed: they judged the risks as higher when the reason for the mother’s absence was morally questionable (meeting a lover) than when more neutral (running an errand). Of course, whether it’s risky to leave your child alone in a car has nothing to do with why you’re doing it. But that’s exactly the kind of distinction we struggle to maintain.

In modern political debate, nobody navigates this territory very well – not leftwingers, who have a tendency to berate others for prejudice while ignoring it in themselves; and not rightwingers, whose tendency is to insist they’re merely reciting the hard facts about reality, when they’re often prejudiced, too. The safest working hypothesis is probably that we’re all a bit worse than we like to pretend, while others are less unremittingly terrible than it’s comfortable to admit.

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Adam Sandel’s The Place Of Prejudice argues that being “bias-free” is an impossible goal; instead, we should strive to become more conscious of our inevitably skewed worldviews.

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Source: TheGuardian