Saturday, November 11, 2006

Two kinds of Stereotyping

by Tibor R. Machan

Now and then people will characterize groups in various ways. Some of this is clearly prejudice—as when one ascribes to blacks, whites, women, those from Poland, or Latin Americans certain moral attributes which some of those from these groups may exhibit but which are certainly not innate to all members of the group. Thinking that all Mexicans are lazy or that Germans are by nature methodical or, again, that Americans are phlegmatic would be such prejudice. These are traits of individuals and while some in these groups may have them, many clearly do not. One needs to see if the ascription is justified instead of making it just because someone is a member of the group. One is, to put it somewhat differently, not morally good or bad because one is born black or Australian or Chinese. One is good or bad as a result of one's own judgments and actions.

But sometimes it makes good sense to ascribe traits to people in light of their membership in certain groups. This is so when they belong to the group as a matter of their own choice. If someone, as an adult, joins the Mafia or the Nazi Party, or becomes a Roman Catholic or a Muslim, and if it turns out that such membership amounts, in part, to agreeing to think and act in certain ways, then it makes perfectly good sense to expect members to favor the thinking and acting that goes with membership in these groups. And if such thinking and acting turns out to be morally or politically objectionable, holding such members responsible for what they have freely agreed to accept in terms of thinking and acting is justified.

Even if one is born into a religion or political party—as most of us are—we aren't forced to remain members in near-free countries but in time freely accept our membership, even if only by acquiescence. If my parents are Nazis or members of the Ku Klux Klan and they inculcate their vile ideology in me, if after I reach the age of reason I remain a member, this can certainly be held against me.

Sometimes this can happen with less obvious cases. Suppose a certain profession in one's part of the world has become corrupt—for example, medicine has pretty much been taken over by quacks or the police have become an arm of dictatorial government—then becoming or remaining a member of such a group can certainly be a fault. And those on the outside have every justification to hold it against the members for staying with the group.

When under the Nazis many judges of the pre-Nazi regimes were induced to remain with their new masters, who were perpetrating gross injustice, it was perfectly valid to question the integrity of these judges—especially since, by their choice, they added a patina of fake legitimacy to the whole thing. For a while, of course, some of them stayed with their roles in the hope that they would be able to reverse trends; but in time it became obvious that such efforts were futile. Remaining a judge under the Nazis pretty much made one complicit in the policies of the Nazis.
This, of course, is a very clear-cut case and not all of them are similar. Suppose the Roman Catholic clergy slowly began to turn a blind eye to child molestation among its members. At some point remaining a member of the Roman Catholic clergy could make one guilty of supporting child molestation, at least unless one takes a clear stand against one's fellow clergy in the matter.

The same holds true for members of other professions who fail to take a stand against corruption within their own ranks. For example, when in many countries across the globe the police willingly carry out tyrannical—or even petty-tyrannical—laws and regulations, coercively intruding upon the lives of innocent people, without resigning their positions or at least speaking out against the tyrannical measures their duties entail, then membership in the police corps becomes something morally objectionable, even when there are many aspects of the work that do not involve such tyrannical conduct.

Or, say, it turned out that for someone to teach philosophy at a university it would be a requirement to distort the history of the discipline or to mis-instruct students—as was the case, for example, throughout Soviet bloc countries during the rule of the Communists and in German universities when the Nazis where in charge—some sign of resistance would be required for one to remain a respectable member of the teaching profession.

Of course, there can be mitigating circumstances—in some countries if one does not fall into line, one pretty much risks one's life. But that isn't so in America. If one refuses to protest the unjust or corrupt policies of a profession that has gone substantially corrupt, one is guilty of being an accessory—however much good one also does within the profession in question.

Say if I were urged by the administration of my university to distort the nature of some school of philosophy I am teaching and I complied. Even while remaining accurate about all the other schools, I would have compromised my professional integrity.

Accordingly, it is no prejudice to condemn people who are members of professions which have gone substantially corrupt, even if the proper objectives of the profession are morally unobjectionable and one is able to carry out some of these while performing one's duties.

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