Thursday, April 18, 2013

When our eyes deceive us

Conor Friedersdorf has a good post up about the coverage of the incident in Boston and how some conservatives are already reacting to what they think the media will do. Here's a point I want to add to:

There are times when journalists bungle this sort of coverage in ways that are unfair to the right and times when they handle things in ways that are unfair to Muslims. But as a general matter, tolerance is urged when the perpetrator is Muslim, and not when the perpetrator is a white right-winger, not because journalists only value tolerance in one situation, but because when guys like Tim McVeigh perpetrate terrorism, there's never an irrational backlash against white men.

That racial and ethnic tolerance will prevail goes without saying.

He's completely correct. And I think people have this reaction in part because it's a numbers game. Sure, there are some people who are just going to be outright racist regardless of what the facts say. But other well meaning people don't automatically start suspecting every white man they see is a terrorist or criminal after a white man committed an act of terrorism or a more normal crime because most of the white men they interact with on a daily basis don't do those things.

In the case of a white man doing those things, their eyes and experience are telling them the proper statistical conclusion, that not all white men are criminals. This one white man who did so is an outlier who isn't representative of the majority. It's an easy conclusion to come to because our sample size in the US is enormous. There are simply a ton of white men, so much so that even if they were disproportionately more likely to be criminals, we wouldn't recognize it as much because the number who aren't criminals is just so big.

In the case of a Muslim people the opposite is the case. A big part of the Muslim intolerance is also the media and the freakishness of 9/11 (that it actually happened and on the scale it did). But it's also that most Americans don't interact with Muslims at anywhere close to the same rate they do white men. If they did it would be just as obvious that they should be treated with the same tolerance as white men.

The difficult thing is that our eyes and brains seem to work this way naturally. We group, order, and make judgements about these types of things in our minds without actively telling our brains to do so. It just happens naturally because it's the most efficient way to process all of the information we receive in a quick manner. So what Conor is saying is that it's the media's job to process the same information we are all receiving and relay the more accurate data to us so that we can make better judgements. Because most of us simply don't have either enough data or the right data to make the best judgements, which leads to things like intolerance toward Muslims. So don't always trust your eyes.

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