Wednesday 27 August 2008

Those bad, bad stereotypes

In contemporary society stereotyping is bad form.

Every age has its spectres, and to paraphrase an old saying (an old stereotype?), you shall be known by the company you don't keep.

Yet generalisations are useful; in fact, without our ability to generalise about a situation life can be downright dangerous.

Imagine you want to cross a road. Wouldn't it be prudent to generalise about cars as being potentially deadly and never mind the specific disposition of these particular drivers and their vehicles?

Assigning any act to some nether region does not abolish the act, it merely hides it from view. Demagogues find this hard to understand and so proceed to elevate their fears to a degree of substance they initially did not possess.

Demonising the stereotype follows a similar track. Rather than producing a people of wisdom and sound judgment the content of generalisations lives under the surface, and its features are hardly touched upon.

Our mind is a pattern-seeking and identifying system par excellence. Its neuronal hardware does not so much define the re-representative content of incoming information, rather it uses it for the emergence of chaos-type states that define themselves in terms of their affinities with each other. Since it is also a highly distributive system related clusters are formed very quickly across the relevant sections of the network.

What these clusters mean to us is a function of their relatedness to previous states, and not dependent on their actual information value as such.

The more fundamental the re-representative regions are the faster the result. The term social cognition refers to our innate ability to form judgments on people within seconds, using facial traits and overall appearance. A useful introduction to such material can be found on the live science page.

Of course, recognising people for their potential positive or negative effects on us has been a necessary ability for over millennia; no wonder we have become so good at it.

A corollary to the process is the preordained pattern already formed at the moment of the current process. We don't make judgments - rightly or wrongly - without already having been exposed to some data that had been able to generate the patterns we now use to once again categorise what is new. It doesn't always work. Just because we have been hit by three red cars in a row does not mean every single read car is about to converge on us. On the other hand, how valid are the reasons for completely dismissing such a possibility? The pattern recognition facility is not about the comprehensive identification of content, it allows us to respond precisely because we don't know everything there is about a given situation. And if we do err we do so on the side of caution.

We stereotype people. Polite company excepted of course (another stereotype!) but despite an era of political correctness jokes about national traits are ever so popular. Want to know some about Europeans?

At this point there would not be too many readers who fire off an angry email. So instead of Europeans let's exchange the word for Indigenous People. Still comfortable?

The readiness to recognise generalisations as generalisations and nothing more depends on the ability to abstract. We can laugh at a joke because we know it is a caricature, not to be taken too seriously. Not everyone shows such largesse.

One measure of the degree of abstraction at work is the act of self-proclaiming. There are those who define themselves in terms of their own assessment as an individual, and there are those who see themselves as the representative of a collective. If the response by their social surrounds proceeds likewise (ie, judging them in terms of such a collective) it will either be met with approval if its nature is on the positive side but met with anger if it is not. Yet in principle that response had been exactly in line with the portrayal of themselves. The anger emerges because abstraction had been largely absent.

Suppressing innate functions never works. A far better approach is to allow them the light of day so that they may be examined for what they are.

Thursday 7 August 2008

Black sheep: the new black?

Criminals, or more precisely, young criminals, are in the news once again.

There would hardly be a newspaper in the world where headlines about children on the attack have not appeared at one time or another. The Courier Mail, Queensland's metropolitan daily, is no exception.

This time we read about youth gangs attacking shops, people on the street, and invading school grounds wielding machetes and slashing other students.

Several things stand out. Violent teenagers are nothing new, but over the last few decades have pushed their boundaries. The attacks have become bolder, and now include spaces that once used to be virtually untouchable (such as schools). At the same time the official response has spread across a spectrum of reconciliation supporting an industry of counsellors, psychologists, and courts that seek to ameliorate the phenomenon through a sophisticated construct of analysis and political correctness.

Another feature would be the tendency to barricade oneself behind a wall of optimistic perception that supports the system and attacks the critic - a typical characteristic of a parochial society such as Queensland extending into many other areas. However, this is a topic by itself.

From Otoom's point of view a society is a system that relies on the interdependent activities of its members and the information developed through creation and feedback. The activities generate the data, and their surrounds reflect via feedback which in itself becomes modified by those entities and their respective processes. How complex such dynamics turn out to be depends on the complexity of society per se.

Any event can be analysed and deconstructed to the nth degree. Whether the result is still applicable to the here and now becomes a matter of the environment's complexity, rather than the analyst's. As Freud once said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

When members of the public complain about too lenient sentences, a judge can point to the intricacies of the case and the welter of detail playing a part in the decision. However correct all that may be, in the end it is the defendant's understanding of it that determines the long-term result. In our case, would a dysfunctional youth be able and willing to consider the finer points of their condition and relate them to the wider precepts of philosophy and human rights charters? The answer, more likely than not, is in the negative.

The feedback process mentioned earlier occurs on both sides. The youth will rejoin the gang and bask in the glorification of waywardness. The judge's decision will filter through society's institutions and stimulate further the processes of their perception and seeking confirmation within their own maxims. Both derive their sustenance from a mutually contrary world where the interface is not meaningful dialogue but the appearance of yet another victim.

Since in any situation its information value is a matter of the participants' intellectual capacity, the result mirrors that capacity and not its inherent potential.

While companies continuously evolve their methods of testing job applicants for their personal characteristics, when it comes to a demographic's average we have fallen into the trap of considering humanity at large as an amalgam of essentially equal performers. Yet, as the most cursory glance around the world will show, nothing could be further from the truth. The very quality of daily life differs from Sydney to Paris to Dacca. Just as there are differences on the large scale, within a society similar variations can be found.

So yes, for a more subtle person the deliberations of a judge carry the intended meaning, but for a 12-year-old brute they are neither here nor there. Still, both are subjected to the same treatment. And both, given the confluence of interdependent information flows, will view their status from their own disposition. The judge will contemplate a complex interaction, the youth will savour his victory. Both will go from there.

On a large scale the interference by the West in the chaos of African demographics produces a similar outcome. The current accusations leveled against senior members of the French government during the Rwandan massacres demonstrate how costly the interaction of disparate complexities can become. The chaos as a result of two low-complexity groups, Hutus and Tutsis, playing out the game of hierarchy after their own fashion, cannot be met through the high-complexity action by a third party. Just as a teacher should not quote Voltaire when faced with bunch of quarrelling children, in a traditional setting warring tribes were subdued through the action of a strongman. In the current climate of perceived equality however a realistic assessment of the players has become heresy.

And so the French government is attacked by a tribe; in Brisbane citizens are set upon by gangs.