The dangers of shorthand thinking

Shorthand thoughts are those instantaneous judgements we make (usually about people) based on a very limited data set, or our own prejudices. It's in play when we see a burly shaven headed man in football colours and brand him a larger lout; or when we see a group of teenage hoodies coming towards us at night, and we steel for trouble. In general it's a quick negative judgement, based on a set of assumptions. It's judging a book by its cover (although for reasons of full disclosure, I recently didn't buy a book because it had a cover I would be too embarrassed to show). We all do it; it saves us valuable time, and helps us avoid taxing our brain thinking about things which aren't quite worth the effort, or which we believe has always been the case. Some of us are better at it than others, but it has its drawbacks.

Shorthand thoughts are those instantaneous judgements we make (usually about people) based on a very limited data set, or our own prejudices.

It’s in play when we see a burly shaven headed man in football colours and brand him a larger lout; or when we see a group of teenage hoodies coming towards us at night, and we steel for trouble. In general it’s a quick negative judgement, based on a set of assumptions.

It’s judging a book by its cover (although for reasons of full disclosure, I recently rejected a book because it had a cover I would be too embarrassed to show).

We all do it; it saves us valuable time, and helps avoid taxing our brains thinking about things which aren’t quite worth the effort, or which we believe have always been the case (from past experience). Some of us are better at it than others, but it has its drawbacks.

In today’s (Western society), there are a number of judgements which must be made with care. Those surrounding race, gender, and sexual preference which we are all now so incredibly aware of and sensitive too.

But this sensitivity can throw up rather hysterical responses to situations where any comments are labelled ‘racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, Islamaphobic, or homophobic’, simply because they include a protagonist which falls into one of the above groups, but which are genuine points of view, devoid of any of these components.

It’s understandable and possibly necessary consequence of trying to engineer social change. But on a personal level I find it disingenuous and dangerous.

How would you react to the following situation(s):

  • You’re out late with a couple of friends, chilling out in a coffee shop, and a group of young men sitting at a table nearby are loud and boorish. Or you’re at a birthday dinner with a bunch of guys, and the topic of conversation turns predatorily sexual. Many people would feel uncomfortable in these situations, in the first, you may leave the cafe, in the second, you may think twice about accepting another invitation to dinner from that group.

Now what if the above situation, the protagonists are gay. Well you’re likely to be labelled a homophobe. What was acceptable in one situation becomes unacceptable in another.

The problems with this real example is one of short-hand thinking, and a Pavlovian reaction to certain triggers.

It is difficult for women and minority groups; society, institutions, and individuals are likely to have in-built prejudices which stack the odds against them. But it is dangerous to go the other way, and infer these prejudices into every action, simply because the protagonist fits one of these groups.

How does it help that we are unable to voice any views for fear of offending others. Equality means being equal, that includes criticism, and being held to account, to an equal standard as everyone else.

On a personal level if you disagree with a person’s behaviour, point of view, or actions, you should of course think twice before casting judgement. But you should also feel comfortable standing and speaking up without the fear of being hastily judged as a racist/sexist/homophobe; or without accepting the presumptive guilt which is heaped on you for the failings of society as a whole.

If people feel unable to voice legitimate views, then any illegitimate views they have only harden, through lack of debate and not exposing their views for consideration. Their actions/prejudices are driven underground.

And for those at fault who accuse us (carte blanche) with whichever particular card they play, the effect is equally destructive.

I know it’s not as simple (dare I say black and white) as all the above, I understand that part of the problem are that the value judgements and lenses we look through are inherently biased and a function of prejudice which is so deeply embedded (institutionalised) that we may not even see it.

But frankly, on a purely personal level, I’m just pissed off that someone can make a lazy nuclear accusation (I call it nuclear because you have no come back) that you are sexist, racist, or a homophobe in such an easy  flippant way. Where they wouldn’t even consider it an issue in identical situations where the protagonist didn’t fit into one of these groups.

That’s not equality, its lazy short-hand thinking.

SS.//

Further reading:

> An interesting blog posting from a Barack Obama supporter: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2008/5/17/1272/09695/235/517428

> Implicit memory (a bit of a stretch but kind of related):
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Implicit_memory

> Comments by Trevor Philips (head of the CRE):
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/politics/1896134/Trevor-Phillips-warns-of-immigration-‘cold-war’.html

>Equal Rights for Men
Jodi Kasten equal rights for men

PS> I’m aware this is a highly sensitive subject, your reasoned comments and views are welcome below:

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