When Prejudice is Fair

Anyone born since 1950 has had it drummed into their head that prejudice is deeply wrong.  But I will maintain that most human thinking about people involves simply the application of prejudices, and much of the time, there is nothing unfair about it.

There are some things about us that we cannot reasonably be expected to change — our race or our gender, for example.  Discriminating on the basis of such things, that an individual has no control over, is clearly unfair.

But what about things the individual does have control over?

I remember when I started my sophomore year in college I was in the middle of a very deep identify crisis.  I had had a very socially unsuccessful freshman year, and was quite uncertain about what kind of person I wanted to be. I sort of wanted to be a hippie, since I’d met some hippies who were pretty nice, but I believed very strongly that the Russians posed a serious military threat to us that we should be prepared for.  I also felt that it was very, very important that people be economically productive.  And my hair looked really crappy unless I kept it short.  So I was a failure as a hippie.  And at the same time, I had grown up overseas and a lot of things about American culture were alien to me, yet I spoke with a perfect American accent, so no one was cutting me the slack normally afforded to clueless foreigners.

I didn’t fit any cultural stereotypes very well.  When people met me, it would take them a long time to figure out what I was all about, and in college everyone has so many people to meet that most people weren’t willing to invest the effort to understand who I was.

In the spring quarter, I moved to living in a dorm suite with 7 other guys.  Most of the other guys were Grateful Dead fans.  They weren’t really hippies.  They were very politically incorrect.  They didn’t wear tie-dyes and their hair wasn’t very long.  They wore flannel shirts and jeans.  Basically, they were stoners and scuzzy white boys.  And for the most part, girls wanted nothing to do with them.

I became one of them.  I dressed like them, I listened to lots and lots of the Grateful Dead, and I adopted their vocabulary.  I finally fit a stereotype.  The stereotype put me near the bottom rung of the social hierarchy of the dorm, but a rung is a rung, and it was within my reach.  People who met me now could, within a few minutes or less, size me up and get an idea of what kind of person I was, and make a decision as to whether to bother getting to know me better.  It was progress.

Eventually I got sick of the Grateful Dead and being scuzzy and left that mould for better ones, moving up the ladder.  But you have to start somewhere.

Most people deliberately conform to stereotypes, consciously or unconsciously.  By doing so they advertise themselves to the world, and others can quickly know what to expect of them.  By conforming to stereotypes with regard to unimportant, superficial matters like dress and the vocabulary one uses, people make promises to society about what sort of values they have deep down.

Most of us live in a world with many people and abundant social opportunities.  People who are looking for friends have certain qualities they are after, and make very quick assessments of other people based on very limited, superficial evidence, through the cautious application of generalizations.  And it all works.

Liberals often seem to be striving to create a world without prejudice, a world where no one applies stereotypes.  Not gonna happen.  It just wouldn’t work.

The Golden Rule and Beyond

The Golden Rule

Many times in my life, I’ve asked people about their moral basis for running their lives.  Very often, whether religious or not, they will quote the Golden Rule as their basis for morality.

Jesus said the Golden Rule.  He was neither the first, nor the last, to say it:

Do to others as you would have them do to you.   Luke 6:31 NIV

That’s a good start, but I think it could bear some improvement.  A masochist following this rule would run around whipping everybody.  A chef who liked spicy food who bury everything in jalapenos for all his customers.  Those are extreme and absurd examples, but in general, people vary a lot in how they like to be dealt with, and dealing with others strictly according to one’s own personal tastes will rub a lot of people the wrong way.  So how about:

Do to others as they would have you do to them.

That’s better.  It still breaks down in a few cases, like giving a bottle of whiskey to a wino or giving car keys to a 10-year-old, but most of the time, it will work pretty well.

But this says nothing specific about what consequences will follow.  So let’s get more specific:

Do to others as they would have you do to them, and if you don’t, you aren’t worth squat.

There are some organizations, private charities and the government, who will do things for you whether you make yourself useful or not.  They have this quaint notion of intrinsic, unconditional human worth.  But it doesn’t go very far — in the United States, the pickings of charity, private and public, are awfully slim.  And even those organizations won’t, they can’t, give you genuine admiration and respect unless you have earned it.  No one can.  And you earn it by doing things for other people.

“But wait,” you ask “isn’t anyone going to love me just for me?“.  Unless you’re really unlucky, your parents will, to some extent.  That’s because, compared to the way the rest of the human race views you, their view of you is utterly insane.  Don’t expect such treatment from anybody else.  Your spouse?  Not on your life.  In most cases, the facts that they find you attractive, that you’re willing and able to have sex with them, and that you’re generally nice to them, will play a big role in the dynamic.

The Waiter

Say you are on a business trip, and you don’t eat breakfast, and you have a busy day, so busy you skip lunch and keep working until 10pm.  You venture out of your hotel for food, absolutely famished, and all of the restaurants are closed except for one.  You go into the restaurant, sit down, and pick something from the menu.

The waiter ignores you for 20 minutes.  Eventually you block his path as he attempts to walk past you.  “Are you going to take my order?” you ask.

The waiter, annoyed, tells you he’s a nice guy.  He boasts that he never swears, his politics are strictly politically correct, and he always remembers his mother’s birthday.  He continues walking in the direction he was going and resumes ignoring you.

20 minutes later, you get up and walk across the restaurant to confront him.  “Are you ever going to bring me some food?” you ask.  The waiter asks you what the hell is wrong with you — he volunteers at a soup kitchen every Thanksgiving, and he gave to UNICEF.

You grab the waiter and shake him: “I don’t give a crap about any of that!  I need food!” you scream.

That is the how the world works, only you are the waiter, and society is that starving customer.  The whole world is full of needs and wants, and in most situations, it will judge you solely by your ability to satisfy those needs and wants.

“But,” you may argue, “I’m a nice person.  Isn’t that worth something?”.

Very little, it turns out.  It’s the bare minimum.  It’s like a car wash advertising that they won’t let the air out of your tires.  To really be attractive to other people, you’re going to have to have a lot more to offer than that.

A Moment of Honesty

Watch this 7-minute clip: (warning: foul language, stark emotional savagery):

For those of you who can’t watch videos (and you’re really missing something, I’ve watched it 10 times), it’s the famous, Oscar-nominated speech Alec Baldwin gives in the 1992 cinematic masterpiece Glengarry Glenn Ross (and it’s the only scene he’s in). Baldwin’s character — who you assume is the villain — addresses some middle-aged real estate salesmen and tears them apart, telling them that they’re all about to be fired unless they “close” the sales they’ve been assigned:

“Nice guy? I don’t give a shit. Good father? Fuck you! Go home and play with your kids. If you want to work here, close.”

It’s brutal, rude, and borderline sociopathic, and also it is an honest and accurate expression of how the world sees you. The difference is that, in the real world, people consider it so wrong to talk to you that way that they’ve decided it’s better to just let you keep failing.  Is Baldwin’s character a sadist or a savior?

The 3 men on the receiving end of this punishment are real estate salesmen precisely because they’ve made it to middle-age without acquiring much in the way of marketable skills.  As a result, they have no bargaining position, no option of being able to walk out the door if they get treated like crap.  They claim to have the skill of “salesmanship”, but they suck at even that.

Furthermore, Baldwin’s character knows full well he’s doing no harm by destroying their self-esteem.  They don’t need self-esteem to do their jobs.  To be a great salesman, one needs to be sycophantic, insincere, and manipulative.  Self-esteem would be an impediment.

When I watched the movie 20 years ago, the scene with Baldwin was painful, but interesting.  But when Jack Lemmon, one of the salesmen, went into the field and turned on his “sales charm” and started oozing syrupy insincerity out of every pore, pretending he felt like the world was a wonderful place while the viewer knew his back was to the wall and he’d just had the living crap kicked out of him by a guy half his age, it was almost unbearable.  I nearly walked out of the theater.

Don’t Be Afraid to Create


Check out this video.  You don’t have to watch the whole thing:

This guy created something.  All it takes to do something like this is Google around about something for a weekend, recite a bunch of facts before the camera, and presto!  You’ve contributed something to the world.  And doing it was better than not doing it.

Some people don’t create because they know that if they do, what they create won’t be perfect.  As long as they produce nothing, their record is untarnished.  They are cowards.  And they will justify their cowardice by tearing apart anything anyone else creates.

There are many people who think they are writers.  They introduce themselves as writers at parties, they really believe they have the soul of a writer.  They just never get around to the part where they actually write stuff.

“What?” you ask “Is the only thing that defines a ‘writer’ the matter of whether they actually write anything?”.

For the love of God, yes!

The Anti-Work Ethic


I recall in 1979, I went to a party with a bunch of 30-year-olds, all much older than me.  They were ’60’s children, all hippies.  They had all gone to college, and when they did, doing anything economically viable was so unfashionable it was considered downright immoral, “selling out”.

They were talking about their difficulty making a living.  Generally, they felt it was terribly unjust that society demanded that they make an economic contribution, as it was something they were completely unprepared for.

It was understandable — in the late sixties, there was still a perception that a college degree, in any major, was a guaranteed ticket to a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle.  It was only in the seventies that it became apparent that this was no longer the case, but for these hippies this news was too late — they were already out of school and floundering on their own.

But that was over 30 years ago.  People have had a plenty of time to wise up.  But the counter-culture is still going strong.  Kids emulate professional athletes — a career path that has less than a one in ten thousand chance of manifesting itself in a paying job when you’re 25.  Kids identify with rock stars, another profession highly unlikely to pan out, and rock stars seem to thrive on being the most unhealthy role models imaginable.

Since the 1960’s, American society has become very age-segregated.  High school and college students rarely talk with anyone 5 years older than themselves.  A college student choosing their major has a very blurry view of what the world after graduation is going to look like. In 2013, 61% of graduating college students said they didn’t take employment prospects into account while choosing their major.

So all these college students graduate without acquiring any marketable skills, economically castrating themselves, and spend the rest of their lives whining about how “evil” capitalism is because it doesn’t compensate them better than it does.

What does one call someone who deliberately avoids making themselves useful specifically because they feel it’s beneath them?  Dare I use the term “lazy“?  How about “justly impoverished”?

“You Are in My Thoughts”


Some people think the fact that they are “concerned” about something is enough to make them good people.

If you were sick, how would you like a doctor who came up to your hospital bed, looked you over, and said “You are in my thoughts.  Let me know if that cures you.” and then walked away?  Probably not much.

If you are really thinking about a problem, like actually researching it and Googling or even (heaven forbid) reading books, that’s fairly good.  You might come up with a solution, or at least be able to vote more intelligently.  But most “thinkers” say they’re “concerned” about something, feeling that that is enough to make them a “good person”, and go no further.

Some Christians say “I’ll pray for you.”.  And I don’t want to sell them short.  I’ve been a Christian in the past, and it takes more than zero effort to pray about something, and it’s time-consuming and usually pretty boring.  But prayer is of dubious effectiveness, and as importantly, one thing I would really like to draw to the attention of such Christians is that Christ had no use for the lazy.  He doesn’t use the word “lazy” very much, but he really had it in for “fruitless trees”.  You are judged by your fruit, that is, what you get done, and just asking God to do it all for you is very probably much less well appreciated.  Here’s Jesus Christ on the topic of fruitless trees:

Luke 6:43-44 NIV

No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit.

Matthew 7:16-20 NIV

By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

John 15:1-2 NIV

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.

Matthew 21:18-19 NIV

Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered.

It’s like the Son of God is saying “Nice guy?  I don’t give a shit.  If you want to work here, close.“.

The Miracle of Cooperation


Fortunately, most people get it.  Most people have figured out that they have to find a way to make themselves useful, and they do and they work together and actually get shit done.  The hippies are going extinct.  Now we have young, healthy, college-educated hipsters living on food stamps, but there aren’t quite enough of them to drag us all into the abyss, at least not yet.


This piece was substantially inspired by 6 Truths That Will Make You a Better Person, by David Wong, of Cracked Magazine.  I thought it was one of the most awesome essays I’d ever read, except that Cracked magazine is aimed primarily at a 15 to 25 year old, male demographic, and the essay was just unacceptably immature, profane, and even disgusting for most audiences.  So I spent a whole damn day on putting it into my own words, with substantial modification, to reach more of the world.