Small Town Logic: Racism, Prejudice, and Bigotry Part Three

Small Town

Ok, now it is going to get downright serious.

A quick recap of the salient points:

  • Generalizations are common and necessary mental operations
  • Generalizing is, in itself, a morally neutral activity (for a fuller analysis of inductive arguments – which produce generalizations – see my article on Arguments and read the section on Inductive Arguments at under the Critical Reasoning Tab)
  • Racism and prejudice involve the make of generalizations
  • All racism and prejudice may NOT, inherently be logically unreasonable
  • All bigotry is nothing more that firmly disagreeing with someone else’s firmly held beliefs

A generalization involves perceiving a certain quality in a small sample of a group of things and then projecting that same quality onto all the rest of the things in that group even though there is no first-hand experience of those other things.

I am going to try to be as simple as possible here, so stay with me. Suppose I have never been to Orum (a small town in Nebraska) and  I meet a person from this town, and this person is a jerk to me.  Later that month, I meet another person from Orum, and that person is rude to me. And then, a couple of weeks after that, I meet another person from Orum, and lo, and behold, this person is offensive and aggressive to me.  After the first experience, I simply see the one individual as having negative character qualities. After the second, I see a pattern starting, and I at least wonder if there is something in the water up there in Orum. After the third person, however, I am rather convinced that there is something about all people in Orum that makes them negative and difficult – I don’t know why – maybe the way they are educated, raised, local hardships – I don’t know why, and frankly I don’t care. I just put in my brain that all people from Orum are not nice people.

So you tell me, is this unreasonable? Am I being irrational and narrow minded?   My answer is four-fold.

First, logically speaking, whether or not I am being unreasonable is based on how big the gap is – how many folks there are in Orum compared to the three that I have met.  If there are only four people in the town, then my inference (my logically concluding that everyone is that way) is statistically a safe inference.  I have first-hand experience of 75% of the people and all of the 75% consistently demonstrate similar characteristics. If, in fact, there are thirty people in Orum, then I only have experienced 10% of the Orumites – and that is a far less safe inference. My sample is way too small to reasonably conclude that the other 80% are in some measure bad people.  It would be an unsafe inference. But to be honest, it is still not out of the realm of possibility that they all are mean because all of the people in my experience had the same quality – 100% of the sample. Are you with me so far?

How reasonable my generalization is about the unknown Orumites is simply (and arithmetically) determined by the ratio of the known sample to the unknown whole. Even if all of my known things in my sample have the same quality, if my sample is under 50% of the whole, I suggest it would be an unsafe inference –  all I can say is that it is possible the rest also have that quality. If my sample is above 50%, then I suggest that it is probable that the rest have that quality. If I get up to the 80-90% area, and I have yet to find a counter example (an individual that does not have the quality), then my inference is highly probable that the rest also have the quality.

Remember now, that no matter safe my inference, if I am projecting a quality onto things that I have no experience with, I am acting with prejudice. I am pre-judging.  If my sample is small compared to the whole set, it is unreasonable prejudice. If my sample is large compared to the whole set (and I still have no counter-examples), my prejudice is reasonable.

Second, once I experience a counter-example, it automatically renders my generalization as incorrect.  I am intellectually dishonest if I hold a belief that ALL are that way after I have met even One that is not. If I continue to meet more individuals with the same quality after that, I still cannot make a generalization – all I can do is say that some/most of the ones I have experienced have that quality but I have no idea what the ratio is amongst those I have not met.

Thirdly, if I end up meeting and experiencing every single person in Orum and they all have negative qualities, I am not being prejudiced if I hold the belief that ALL Orumites are negative people*.  I am NOT being prejudiced because I am not pre-judging. I am post-judging.  I have first-hand experience of all the membersof the group. I cannot, by definition make a generalization because that involves projecting a quality onto unknown members of a group. I have no more unknown members (until more are born or move in, of course). In this last situation, I have no prejudice, reasonable or unreasonable. I just have experiences. If, however, I hold this belief in my head, and refuse to be open to the possibility that new born Orumites or Orum immigration produces new Orumites may, in fact, be nice folk, THEN I am being prejudiced all over again. In any situation where new individuals can populate the set, unless we keep an open mind that the new members may be counter-examples, we ARE being unreasonably prejudiced. We are also being stubborn minded.

Fourthly,  even if I end up meeting and experiencing every single person in Orum and they all have negative qualities, and I am not being prejudiced if I hold the belief that ALL Orumites are negative people I DO, however, have a Racist position (using the term with application to sub-categories) when it comes to Orumites.  I do, by definition, because it fits the definition I gave earlier.  In this situation, the Racism is reasonable.  It is hard to type that sentence. It really is; however, it is logically the case.  I do so, however, knowing that it would be an extremely rare situation that someone has first-hand experience of every individual within even a sub-category and virtually impossible to know every individual within a race.  Therefore most, if not all racism is unreasonable.

A recap:

Prejudice may be reasonable or unreasonable.

Racism may be reasonable or unreasonable – but reasonable racism is rare if not, in all practical terms, impossible.

*Note: I am very well aware that there is a possibility that I, personally, may be an irascible, petulant, curmudgeon  – a nasty guy myself, and that all the people I meet from Orum are actually nice folks – but my own negative character qualities make them respond to me in a negative way. In this situation I am the bad guy and I am causing good people to react in negative ways.  The larger the sample I have, the greater the likelihood that I might be the problem – I, being the common denominator, might actually be the problem, not them.  THIS is something we need to be careful to consider.

More to come tomorrow about Adopted Prejudice and Racism… unless, of course, you getting bored with all of this!

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1 Response to Small Town Logic: Racism, Prejudice, and Bigotry Part Three

  1. Pingback: Small Town Logic: Racism, Prejudice, and Bigotry Part Three | Jim Shaul's Reflections and Refractions

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