Skepticism

Fear, Hate, and Friendship

Reading this story on CNN.com got me thinking about how (or if) we apply skepticism when deciding whom we will allow into our social circles.

The article describes the new atmosphere of xenophobia in South Africa, which has led to the deaths of more than 50 people across the country, and is destroying the country’s image as a haven of stability. Photos of a Mozambican man being burned made the front pages of newspapers around the world last week, causing non-natives of South Africa to flee to refugee camps or even back to countries like Somalia because they fear persecution and even physical harm simply because they are foreigners.

Granted, this is an example from the far end of the fear spectrum, and mass hysteria and other social psychological factors no doubt play a roll in xenophobia. But it’s not a far stretch to think a bit of skepticism could help alleviate this type of behavior on such a grand scale. Taking time to think critically about individuals and groups would certainly reduce snap judgements about people based solely on what square of dirt they were born on.

Now, true xenophobia seems to be a rare bird that only rears its head during or after traumatic events, like a terrorist attack, or a war, or a other international conflict. It doesn’t seem as pervasive in times of peace. But other forms of unfounded fear and disdain, such as racism and sexism, live with us all the time, despite the current political and socio-economic environment.

And these “-isms” seem woefully bereft of any skeptical forethought. Far too often we hear of atrocities visited upon innocence, not because they are evil or otherwise bad people, but simply because they are different, simply because of things like their skin color or sexual preference.

It takes no critical thought whatsoever to fear or hate someone for such silly reasons.

But how do we select those we wish to befriend? Do we apply skepticism when we meet someone new? If so, to what extent, and in what form? Do we make a conscious effort to judge people on an individual basis, despite any socially ingrained preconceived notions? What about in this the era of “Internet friends”? How do we accurately assess a person if all we know of them is a collection of electronic blips on a screen? Do we do it at all? How exactly do we determine friend or foe? Is there an overt process, or do we simply rely on instinct?

 

“There are two kinds of people in the world. There are those who are mostly decent, and there are assholes. Try to avoid the assholes.”  — Sam Ogden in the Wit and Wisdom of a Saturday Conversation.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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27 Comments

  1. The reason I love meeting people online before in person is that you get to judge them by their ideas and what they have to say, rather than by what they look like. We all (I hope) would like to not judge people by their looks but I’m afraid it’s an unconscious reaction that we can’t always control. :-( I do believe, however, that we can overcome our inherent prejudices if we are aware of them and make an effort.

  2. Agreed, DD. As far as cultural xenophobia is concerned – well, I’m interested in subcultures and what the individual conveys with their choice of attire. Like, if I see some guy walking down the street wearing a giant down jacket, baggy pants, swaggering and rapping loudly to himself, he’s the one projecting an image of being dangerous – it’s not prejudice or xenophobia if I want to cross the street. Likewise, if someone shows up to some nightclub looking like an IT guy from 1998, why should the bouncer let him in?

    I guess what I’m saying is that I might be going a little off topic,but the reality is that books don’t have random covers assigned to them – the covers (chosen by either the author or publishing house, jeez this metaphor is getting a little gnarly) inform the prospective reader if they even want to give the book a chance. I’m pretty sure that I’m not going to have a cool conversation about the platypus genome with an Anna Nicole look-alike or that Armenian guy whistling at me wearing so much cologne I can smell it down the block.

  3. . . . the covers . . . inform the prospective reader if they even want to give the book a chance.

    I thought conventional wisdom was, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.”

    Actually, I understand what you’re saying. Just giving you the business a little bit.

    Initial visual cues are indicators with some degree of merit. If you are one to meet a great number of people everyday, they certainly help you out from a logistical standpoint. I mean, who has the time or energy to really get to know everyone?

  4. I actually go out of my way to smile and say hi to truckers and other grungy looking blue collar guys at the gas station and other places, because Mr. WriterDD looks like that and he does it on purpose so people don’t bother him by talking to him. He cleaned up once and looked all professional with nicer clothes and a spiffy hair cut and shaved the beard and was annoyed because people wanted to chat with him at the grocery checkout and stuff. :-)

    I actually get irritated when my old farts friends (there we go again) are afraid of kids who look like rappers or who are playing loud music in their cars, etc… usually they also have brown skin and the person who is afraid is white.

    That’s so 1950s. I really don’t get why people have to be afraid of anyone who looks different, especially when it’s mostly a generation gap thing. Just because someone is wearing gold chains or baggy pants or has a nose ring does not mean they are going to mug you.

  5. Yeah, I get the old street-crossing, car-door-locking, general avoidance thing myself pretty regularly. It mostly doesn’t bother me, since it’s been happening since I was a teenager, but sometimes I do find myself wondering what it is about me that inspires that reaction so often.

    I like to think of myself as generally colorblind when it comes to making friends, but I guess I had an unfair advantage on that point growing up. It was a choice of either only hanging out with my brothers (who I can’t stand), or making friends with people who didn’t look like me, dress like me, or talk like me.

    Since then, I’ve done a lot of traveling, and everything I’ve seen has only reinforced that one all-important early lesson: People are generally people. There are jerks, there are stupid people, there are annoying pricks, there are generally cool people, there are totally awesome people – but all I’ve seen and experienced has led me to believe that they are mixed together pretty much evenly.

  6. Relating to skepticism… any sort of challenge to received “wisdom” should be welcome. And if that makes me uncomfortable, then discomfort is the price of rejecting proxies for my decision-making.

  7. Jeez, guys, yeah,black teenagers scare me. That’s really what I was saying. Really, Rystefn, though,in all your travels, can’t you kind of tell the dicks from the not dicks just by looking at the way they behave (uh, catcalling, anyone?)? Assholes just act asshole-y.

    I guess I’m just calling out the whole concept of “you can’t judge a book by its cover” because the reality is that we’re not naked and static. We choose how we are attired and the bod6y language that we project…unless we can’t, but still, a whole mess of (very crucial) judgement can be made/things ascertained by those things.

    As far as the truckers go – what’s wrong with truckers, per se? I never said that ALL people who dress like thy like hip-hop are criminal lunatics…quite the opposite. I said that people who dress the part and LOUDLY rap threatening words while SWAGGERING in the “gangsta” style down the street have no right to be offended if I am frightened because that’s what THEY are putting out there.

    Do you guys see what I’m saying?

    Because I’ve witnessed situations where people act a certain way and then are offended when people treat them the way they are acting.

    I’m not talking kids in the suburbs playing rap music in the car. I’m talking about, like, a group of face-tattooed teenagers BLARING rap music in their car and rollingup to your car, staring at you and making threatening gestures. Is it “old fart” to think they might be less than “timmy at playtime”?

    Anyhoo – I stand by my assertion that a whole heck of alot can be known very quickly by how one presents themselves.

    I’m sure you scare the old ladies, Rys, just like I did when I wore my doc martens when I was 15. I’m not talking about characters fromamusic video. I’m talking about what YOU guys think (not what you percieve to be thought of you by normaloids…and whatof them?)

    Disclosure: sake was invloved and band practice just ended and the sake was because two bandmates spent about 15 minutes killing my brain silently, talking about how Obamais ashill for the new worldorderand when I deigned to interject, one said “I don’t need citations. I just go with what FEELS right”

    So…sorry if I’m being a jerk. I loves all you guys…just saying.

  8. I exercise my skepticism when choosing who to allow into my social circles by not making friends with goblins, sylphs, angels, Annunaki, Reptoids, or Nephilim, because they don’t exist.

    and did you really use a quote from yourself as a footer/punchline? That’s, uh, something.

  9. I have a friend from India who refused to have any Muslim friends because it would cast suspicion on her. I’ve also noticed that in England (where I’m currently living) people are very likely to dismiss someone because they are ‘chavs’ and if they get to know one will insist that the person isn’t a chav.

    I have never chosen my friends based on one particular aspect of their personality, at least not consciously. That being said, religious people tend to avoid me as I’m a godless, drinking heathen :-)

  10. Rystefn, though,in all your travels, can’t you kind of tell the dicks from the not dicks just by looking at the way they behave

    Sure, but that’s how they behave, not what they look like, isn’t it?

  11. whitebird, I wasn’t saying you are afraid of black teenagers (many of the kids who frighten the old ladies are also white, mexican, and asian)…or anything like that, sorry if it came across that way.

    But, sadly, a lot of people I know are afraid of people simply because of how they dress, what kind of jewelry they wear, or how loud they play music. I do think that’s related to what Sam is writing about: fear of “other.”

    Personally I think that young people who are acting out in the way you mention are looking for attention and are probably lonely and sad. I tend to feel bad for people like that rather than feel fear.

    Making threatening gestures is something else entirely and if someone threatens you, you should make a police report.

  12. I exercise my skepticism when choosing who to allow into my social circles by not making friends with goblins, sylphs, angels, Annunaki, Reptoids, or Nephilim, because they don’t exist.

    That’s not applying skepticism to whom you allow in your social circles as much as it is demonstrating that you’re not insane.

    You’ve used skepticism to determine whether the little creatures themselves do or do not exist, not that the stereotypes or preconceived social expectations associated with them do or do not exist.

    There are many ways to use skepticism that don’t involve mythical creatures or paranormal activity . . . in case you’re having trouble with the gist of the post.

    And if you’re just joking, that’s, uh, something.

    and did you really use a quote from yourself as a footer/punchline?

    In a manner of speaking, yes. Of course, in the same manner of speaking the entire post is a quote from myself.

  13. Isn’t part of this an evolutionary imperative? We have a natural instinct to associate with people who look and act like us, who are part of our own ‘tribe’ or ‘pack’ because that’s how you build a strong community and how you make sure that you’re stronger than the opposing tribe across the mountains or valley or whatever.

    As someone who has spent a lot of her life in countries that were not my home country, I have found that the easiest way to make friends with people who don’t look the same as you is to act and speak like them. I learned that when I was way too young to think that it was potentially doing harm to my own identity. Now, what I’ve learned is, I can find my own identity and be comfortable with it, but I still have a tendency to be a bit of a chameleon and blend in with the people I hang out with.

    The great part of all that is, I tend to hang out with very diverse groups of people and so I get to have a lot of friends from different worlds. It also has allowed me to realize that hanging out with the other tribe isn’t dangerous or scary. But I do think a lot of racism or our ‘fear’ of people in a different age/color/background of our own is related to ancient evolutionary instincts. Doesn’t make it right, it just makes it common.

    Also, as a brown girl in Georgia, I tend to avoid truckers in gas stations. Does that make me a bad person? :)

  14. See, guys? Isn’t it pretty easy to tell the IT HOGs from the HA’s with a meth business? I guess I’m talking about a combo of clothing and behavior. Obviously (to us) a white teenager wearing a black trenchcoat and skull-pattern headscarf is more likely to have a couple of 20-sided die in his pocket than a fetus that he ripped from a christian woman’s womb with which to do a sacrifice. But if you see a 40 year old woman walking around Topanga Canyon with all manner of crystals and talismen, wearing a “kiss me I’m a Libra”…well, you can glean some info.

    I’m talking more about choice of (subcultural) clothing, not really how a normal person in a particular region would look. If I see a white guy with a shaved head and docs with red or white laces, I’m going to think he’s an asshole – especially if he’s wearing those laces for fashion. Or is he just maybe reclaiming red and white laces,the way Manwoman (http://freewebs.com/manwomans/) is taking back the swastika? (although red and white laces were never an ancient symbol co-opted by the Nazis….I don’t even think colored shoelaces go back very far)

  15. I think most dangerous people look normal. I mean, didn’t Jeffrey Dahmer’s neighbors all say how nice and quiet he was?

    I agree with you, Donna, but I also see the point whitebird is making. There are visual cues that we can detect that help us determine if someone might be dangerous, or even someone with whom we may not want to associate with. Those cues are not always accurate, but perhaps it’s a good starting place.

    Still, to be certain, one would have to investigate further to know for sure.

    The problem is, how does one do that in a social setting without looking like a psychopath? Is it appropriate to say something like, “Hey, you look normal and seem like a decent fellow, but so did Jeffrey Dahmer. Do you by chance have young men’s body parts in your freezer?”

    As skeptics, do we simply rely on instinctual cues about people and move on, or do we investigate further before getting close?

  16. The reason I love meeting people online before in person is that you get to judge them by their ideas and what they have to say, rather than by what they look like.

    “What people look like” is a combination of inherited looks and how they choose to present themselves. It is not unreasonable to make a judgment of someone based on they choices they make, including those of presentation.

    I’m pretty sure that I’m not going to have a cool conversation about the platypus genome with an Anna Nicole look-alike

    This, however, I don’t understand. Is this the bias that beautiful women can’t be smart? Or that women who spend any time on their appearance (hair styles, make-up) are dumb? Because I totally disagree. You’re not going to have a cool conversation about the platypus genone with Anna Nicole, but why not her look-alike?

  17. A few years ago I came across a term that I found useful: rational discrimination. You sometimes need to make quick decisions based on sparse information. For instance, if I am walking alone down a darkened street at night, I might make a decision for my safety based on the outward appearance of passers-by. In my case, I would decided that an adult man in a business suit is less likely to bother me than a 20-something dressed in gangster-wannebe attire. I am discriminating against the latter person, but I must make a decision based on available evidence, and in my world muggers aren’t 50-something businessmen in Brooks Brothers. It is a rational discrimination.

    Now, if I later meet the younger man and find out that he’s a good person, I can revise my initial interpretation. However, choosing the ‘in-your-face, I don’t care what I look like’ attitude isn’t any more moral or superior than the person who spends a great deal of time on their looks. It’s all about forcing a reaction. I have two teen girl friends who dress *very* down and think that it somehow makes them more cool or hip or intellectual than their classmates who wear lipstick and a skirt to class. T’ain’t so.

  18. The preview fuction isn’t working for me so I can’t quote without the risk of displaying my lack of html knowledge to the entire world. But in response to Sam’s question “Is it appropriate to say something like, “Hey, you look normal and seem like a decent fellow, but so did Jeffrey Dahmer. Do you by chance have young men’s body parts in your freezer?”. I believe that if the person asking this is wearing a monocle and affecting a thick English accent then the answer is yes.

  19. I believe that if the person asking this is wearing a monocle and affecting a thick English accent then the answer is yes.

    Absolutely. Everything is approapriate with a monocle and a thick English accent!

  20. If there were a dress code for pedophiles then we’d know who to keep our children away from. However gang clothing is often indicative of behaviors in individuals that is criminal, violent and generally disrespectful of others not belonging to the gang members associates or gang. This is a logical response and very likely a protective evolutionary behavior that is neither irrational, silly, nor prejudicial. The fear response is in fact a reason many dress like gang members when they are not in a gang, and it is certainly why gang members dress in a noticeable fashion to advertise the fact they’re not to be messed with and should be feared. We all engage in discriminating behaviors regarding who we like to socialize with and invest time with. The criteria for friends and associates will always tend to be around shared values, interests and history of association. Training ourselves to look past initial assessments can result in surprises and interesting new friends and associations which could be seen as a benefit of being more rational rather than just reactive. However we are all quite skilled at knowing who and what type of person we like to be around regardless of initial assessments based on appearance or association.

    And writerdd, if IT professionals are getting a thrill by looking bad and gang like while enjoying the fun of motorcycle riding. It doesn’t seem much more than the whole dressing up by the Creative Anachronist to create a “pretend image”. I’d also like to see any evidence that the most dangerous people are “normal looking”, whatever normal is. Statistically violent crime is most often committed by younger males who’s victims tend to be of the same age and from a similar lower socioeconomic standing. The crimes of Jeffery Dahmer, the Green River killer, etc, are statistically minuscule and not at all representative of most violent crimes.

  21. . . . Training ourselves to look past initial assessments can result in surprises and interesting new friends and associations which could be seen as a benefit of being more rational rather than just reactive. . . .

    This is kind of where I live. I mean, I don’t think I’m necessarily more rational than reactive, but I enjoy staying open to all sorts of people, if at all possible. I’ve made some very interesting friends that I otherwise wouldn’t have expected to like, and of course I’ve met some folks that seem to fit the stereotypes. I don’t like them as much.

  22. “Is this the bias that beautiful women can’t be smart?”

    Hell no! Do you know what I look like (wow, that was obnoxious)? I mean peroxide, lee-press-on, hot pink juicy couture pants, you know, how Anna Nicole dressed and styled herself. Last I checked Natalie Portman went to Harvard or something…

  23. Sorry, that was a quick post, was in a hurry. Yeah, I agree with you 100%, Stacey, that beauty has zero to do with brains. I used to get really offended when people would say that models are all stupid (for the record,I never actually got too far into that world, too self-conscious in front of cameras), but then I realized that it’s not necessarily that people were saying beautiful women were stupid, but the ones who chose to be models might not have been the brightest bunch.

    And unfortunately, this stereotype was generally confirmed over and over again with fashion models I knew. A lot of them were aware of this, too, and tried to overcompensate by(painfully) bringing up current events that they really had no valid insight into or (awkwardly) incorrectly using big words. My worldview sure changed!

    Anyway, dressing up is not the same asdressing like Tara Ried at Daytona Beach (but I think that point is pretty well across by now). However, sometimes you can get tricked the opposite way – say there is some ethereal looking victorian goth chick reading Beaudelaire or whatever. You might think that she’s smart. But once you talk to her you might realize that she’s only reading that because she saw it listed in some other goth’s myspace faves and actually is just (albeit a rare shape) cookie cutter and in fact just wants to look the part because “Like, Keanu was so totally cute in Dracula!”.

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