There’re lots of terms used in ways that have great emotional worth but little analytical value. Take the term discrimination. When selecting a wife, some 43 years ago, not every woman was given an equal opportunity. I discriminated against white, Chinese and Japanese women, not to mention criminal women.
You say, “Williams, that kind of discrimination is OK because it’s harmless!” That’s untrue. When I married, other women were harmed. The only way that I couldn’t have harmed other women was to be a man that only one woman would want. Sometimes, I’m tempted by the ideals of equal opportunity and non-discrimination, but Mrs. Williams insists otherwise. Discrimination simply means the act of choice.
Speaking of Mrs. Williams, early in our marriage she used to angrily charge, “You’re using me Walter!” I’d tell her that of course I was using her. After all, who in their right mind would marry a person for whom they had no use? In fact, another way of looking at the problem of people who can’t find marriage partners is that they can’t find somebody to use them. One never wants to be useless.
How about the expression, “It’s not right to profit from the misfortune of others.” That’s utter nonsense that’s easily revealed if we ask: Should there be a law against profiting from the misfortune of others? I’m guessing that auto collision shop owners are not saddened by predictions of ice storms. Neither are orthopedic physicians when people break a limb in a skiing accident. I profit from the fact that students are ignorant of economics. So should we have a law banning profiting from the misfortune of others?
What about prejudice and stereotyping? Going to the word’s Latin root, to pre-judge simply means: making decisions on the basis of incomplete information.
Here’s an example: Suppose leaving your workplace you see a full-grown tiger standing outside the door. Most people would endeavor to leave the area in great dispatch. That prediction isn’t all that interesting, but the question why is. Is your decision to run based on any detailed information about that particular tiger, or is it based on tiger folklore and how you’ve seen other tigers behaving? It’s probably the latter.
You simply pre-judge that tiger; you stereotype him. If you didn’t pre-judge and stereotype that tiger, you’d endeavor to obtain more information, like petting him on the head and doing other friendly things to determine whether he’s dangerous. Most people would quickly calculate that the likely cost of an additional unit of information about the tiger exceeds any benefit and wouldn’t bother to seek additional information. In other words, all they need to know is he’s a tiger.
Similarly, sometimes it makes sense to use sex and race stereotypes. If I’m faced with choosing among people who could become soldiers and succeed in a 20-mile forced march carrying 60 pounds of equipment, I’d assign a higher likelihood that men would succeed more so than women. Or, choosing among the general population who is more likely to be able to slam-dunk a basketball, I’d choose a black over a white and surely men over women. If I were guessing the race of an American most likely to win a Nobel Prize in science, I’d select a Jew over any other ethnic group. In none of these cases is there necessarily a causal relationship, but there’s surely an associative one. Moreover, pre-judging and stereotyping doesn’t necessarily make one a sexist or racist.
You say, “Williams, how can you get away with such political incorrectness?” It’s easy. I’m a tenured professor, and I have diversified sources of income – plus, I don’t have much longer in this world.