Is there a stereotypical doctor in the house?

DrTigerI tweeted this today:

Just saw this. Librarian to Asian man: "Are you a doctor?" Man: "Yes." Librarian: "We have someone in the front suffering a cardiac arrest."

The man wasn’t wearing a stethoscope, a lab coat, or scrubs. If you had asked me to guess what he did for a living, I wouldn’t have been able to. He was sitting with his son in the children’s section at the back of the library, and they were reading together.

When he rushed off with the librarian to tend to the heart-attack victim, I saw his son, a concerned-looking Asian woman, and an Asian girl watch him go. I’m guessing the whole family had come to the library together.

Meanwhile, there was an announcement still being made over a loudspeaker:

"If there is a medical doctor in the library, please come immediately to the front desk!"

The announcement was repeated several times.

As my son and I later made our way out of the library, I asked the librarian if the ambulance had come in time. She said yes and told me she thought the woman (the victim, I assume) would be fine. I wanted to ask her why she had guessed that the Asian dad was an MD, but I resisted the urge. I figured the question would embarrass her. I’m guessing, in fact, that everyone there had understood that the quick-thinking librarian had done an efficient bit of racial profiling — and thank goodness she had done so — but no one wanted to acknowledge what had happened or how appropriate it was.

There were only two other adults in the children’s section: the Asian mom and yours truly. I have a picture in my head of the librarian’s mental calculus. Man or woman? Go for the man. Asian man or white man? Go for the Asian man.

WalterWilliamsI wonder if she suffers any pangs of conscience.

The event reminded me of article that I thought was by Walter E. Williams about the rationality and legitimacy of stereotypes, discrimination, and prejudice. In the article, as I remember it, the reader is asked to imagine a contest in which you’re allowed to ask a stranger for help with a math problem in order to win a big cash prize.

I spent a silly amount of time searching Williams’s articles and couldn’t find it. I found plenty of articles on the same general subject, making the same general points, but none of them posited this hypothetical contest.

Then I found a passage by Williams that triggered the necessary memories for me:

[G]oing 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 is why. 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 quickly calculate that the likely cost of an additional unit of information about the tiger exceeded any benefit and wouldn’t bother to seek additional information. In other words, all they need to know is he’s a tiger.

Ninos MalekThat tiger story reminded me of the image in the old Mises Daily “Stereotyping Defended” by Ninos Malek, a former student of Walter Williams’s. Malek quotes the same story. He also offers as a thought experiment the contest scenario I’d been remembering:

[I]f somebody offered you $1 million to solve a complex mathematical problem and, furthermore, you could choose anybody on a university campus to help you, I doubt you would choose the Paris Hilton–type sorority girl or the Abercrombie and Fitch–wearing fraternity boy. Now consider the young man wearing glasses and a pocket protector in his short-sleeve, button-down shirt: would you not think that he is a better bet?

I liked Malek’s example. It’s the sort of thing that works well for those of us whose principled thinking leans toward the abstract. But for many people, concrete and factual examples are far more compelling. If you feel like writing about the issue of stereotypes (assuming you’d like to take the far-less-popular position that stereotyping can be rational, useful, even — as it turns out — lifesaving) then please feel free to use this real-life example from our afternoon visit to the library.

Now, having taken the anti-knee-jerk, politically incorrect position on the legitimacy of discrimination, I’ll say that there’s a reason that Williams and Malek and I all use extreme cases to illustrate this point. Tigers and heart attacks are life threatening. A million bucks is a lot of money. In the more mundane cases of our day-to-day lives, we can easily be led astray by falling back too readily on our prejudices. Keeping an open mind is a good intellectual exercise if nothing else.

stereotypeI’m thinking of a story my father tells. He was hanging out with a Texan, a white guy, who’d been informally run out of his home state by the police because they didn’t like his hobby. His hobby was killing people in self-defense. He carried big knives, visited dangerous places, and insulted deadly hot heads. Then when they attacked him, he’d use lethal force in self-defense. Sounds like a lovely person.

The way my father tells the story, he and the Texan were standing in line with an old lady in front of them and a black man behind them. The old lady was struggling with a parcel she couldn’t manage to open. She looked up from her struggle, looked right past the two white men behind her, and said to the black man, “Boy, can I borrow your knife?” (This was in New York City, in the early 1960s, when old white ladies called black men “boy” and the stereotype for young black men was that they all carried knives.) The black man apparently answered politely that he didn’t have one. But I bet he hated her assumption, and it’s hard to blame him. The Texan just grinned knowingly at my father.

Even when a stereotype is based on true patterns — and aren’t most of them? — knowing what assumptions people will make is a good way to fool them. When people can predict your expectations, they will also know how to violate those expectations. That black New Yorker probably got searched for knives more often than the homicidal Texan did.

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One Response to Is there a stereotypical doctor in the house?

  1. Scott Lahti says:

    Your links to Walter Williams reminded me of my favorite among his stylistic tactics (along with his battle-of-the-sexes references to his, late, alas, missus) – his vaudevillean, Gallagher-and-Shean use of his surname in ritualized exchanges with his reader as imagined skeptical interlocutor, usually, as about 920,000 Google results remind us, prefixed with the first three words of, e.g., “You say, ‘Williams, that sounds like something you’d read over at bkmarcus.com’; you say, ‘Williams, are you some kind of lowercase libertarian?'”

    “Even when a stereotype is based on true patterns (and aren’t most of them?), knowing what assumptions people will make is a good way to fool people”

    That reminded me of the interview at The Atlantic this week with author and gun-loving liberal Democrat Dan Baum, “What Liberals Need to Understand About ‘Gun Guys'”:

    “Dan Baum is not your typical gun guy. He has a lifelong love of firearms he can trace back to the age of five. But he’s also a Jewish Democrat and a former staff writer for The New Yorker and feels like a misfit next to most gun owners, who identify overwhelmingly on the conservative side of the spectrum.

    “In order to bridge this gap, Baum set off on a cross-country journey, chatting with everyone from a gun store owner in Louisville to a wild boar hunter in Texas to a Hollywood armorer. The result is Gun Guys: A Road Trip. I spoke with Baum about his trek through gun country and why this issue is one of our nation’s most complicated and politically divisive.

    You write that you didn’t want to be part of a gun culture, even though you were a ‘gun guy’ yourself. Why did you feel this conflict?

    “This is one of the things I was trying to figure out — why a fondness for firearms, these beautiful mechanical devices that are so fun to shoot, always seems to be found on the same chromosome as political conservatism. I’m not a conservative. At the same time, often I’d be around my ‘tribe’ — the liberals — and they’d say these terrible things about gun people. ‘Gun nut,’ ‘penis envy,’ all this stuff. I’d keep my mouth shut. I didn’t feel particularly comfortable with either group. That’s why I always wanted to do this book.

    How did the act of carrying a weapon every day affect you?

    … “It was … a good way to camouflage myself. I don’t look like a gun guy, I don’t sound like a gun guy — I sound like just the opposite and I look like just the opposite. They can see me coming a mile away. But if I’m wearing a gun, I’m one of them.

    … “When you carried your gun into a Whole Foods in Boulder, Colorado, no one reacted. But when you went into a Mexican grocery, everyone was on guard. Why do you think that was?

    “I honestly think the people in Whole Foods — their eyes saw it and their brain didn’t. They may have thought I was some kind of cop, even though I really don’t look like it. But in the Mexican store, they didn’t know what to expect. In Mexico, no one gets to carry a gun. Which is kind of crazy, given what’s going on down there. That’s a good example — you’ve got innocents being slaughtered down there, but they can’t defend themselves. It’s always the people who live in nice neighborhoods who want gun control.”

    One of my favorite entries in the lists of stereotype-busting came with the inaugural installment, in the Winter 1949 number of politics, the one-man magazine edited by Dwight Macdonald, of the feature “The Uncommon People”, dedicated to that exact purpose:

    “The trick … is to break the stereotypes—whether of how a husband should react, or how a judge or a scientist or a cop or a pickpocket—in such a way as to show that all men are brothers, or at least brothers-in-law. That is, human beings with something in common (their humanity), and hence able to react to each other, if not with perfect brotherly love, at least with brother-in-law love. That is, affectionate criticism, or critical affection, which permits some interchange between the two parties. It is the great object of the Respectables to prevent this interchange : the American patriots of the Dies or D.A.R. variety excommunicate those critical of Free Enterprise; the Kremlin bureaucrats excommunicate those critical of People’s Democracy; the Progressive excommunicates the Economic Royalist and the Militarist (excepting Eisenhower) in peacetime and the Enemy in wartime. It is all very depressing.

    “How exhilarating it is when some one steps outside these dreary boundaries, acts ‘out of character’ for a moment! How confusing to the bureaucrats and the Wise Men!”

    … “Why are all the good arguments always on the Devil’s side? Why are the virtuous expected to behave in a solemn and quite tedious manner? Pacifists, for example, are expected to react seriously to the absurd situations they are constantly being put into; that is, they are expected to behave in the same stereotyped way as their opponents. All too often they do but sometimes they break the stereotype. When the late Lytton Strachey, who was a CO. in World War I, was asked by his draft board the usual silly question, ‘What would you do if a German soldier tried to rape your sister?’, he threw the hearing into hopeless confusion by replying, in precise donnish tones: ‘I should endeavor to get between them, sir.’ And there is the story of the Quaker who was a passenger on a ship that was boarded by pirates. The Quaker quietly observed the fighting with his hands clasped behind his back. At the climactic moment, he slipped up behind the pirate captain, threw his arms about him, and deftly dropped him over the side of the ship, saying in gentle reproach: ‘Thou hast no business here, friend.’

    Now for some modern instances:”

    [e.g.]

    … “CLEON K. CALVERT, a Kentucky Circuit Judge, recently had a hangover and missed court. He opened the next day’s session: ‘I fine the court $10 for being drunk yesterday.'”

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