Hi, I’m Tim. I’m one of Lisa’s friends, and she’s kindly asked me to write a guest post, so here it is.

As you’ll see in the title, I’m going to talk about prejudice. Believe it or not, I decided to do this before the thing on Close Up last night about the KKK. Ask Lisa; she’ll tell you. The thing is, those disgusting opinions they showed us aren’t the only dangerous way prejudice can manifest itself. They may be the most obvious, and perhaps the most destructive way, but not the only way.

Tamer but equally unfounded prejudices can be found in a lot of gender stereotypes. For example, a lot of people think that women are more talkative than men. There is absolutely no scientific evidence for this, but that doesn’t stop people from making money by publishing books that maintain this stereotype.

But I’m going to go even further and say that even well-founded prejudices can be dangerous. For example, it’s reasonable to expect that it’s easier to play netball well if you’re taller. However, if you then apply this to a particular case, by ignoring a short friend when you’re choosing a social netball team, you could be missing out on a very skilful netball player, and hurting their feelings at the same time.

Even applied in what seems like a more positive way, the same well-founded prejudice can still be dangerous. For example, if you meet a new friend who happens to be quite tall, you might say to them “With legs that long, you must be good at netball; do you want to join our team?”. Now, this person might be really clumsy with a ball. Depending on the particular person, your comment might actually make them feel worse about their netball ability, thinking I must be incredibly clumsy if I’m this tall and still useless at netball.

And that’s not to mention the fact that you could be mistaken about the correlation in the first place. I really know very little about netball, so my example could be complete nonsense.

I suppose what I’m saying is that even perfectly valid statistical correlations (e.g., of the form people of type X are on average better at job Y) can be dangerous if they’re applied in specific cases.

But even stating that the correlation exists can be dangerous, too, if you aren’t careful to say how far the correlation goes. For example, I have a vague memory of hearing something like “boys learn better by doing; girls learn better by looking and listening”. I have no reason to doubt that on average this is true. (I have no reason to believe it, either.) The point is that people hearing that might be inclined to say that boys and girls should be taught in separate classrooms—the boys doing lots of experiments, and building lots of things, while the girls concentrate on reading and listening to the teacher talk. This would be a mistake. I was once a boy, and I have always learnt best from books. I almost never looked forward to the practical experiments in chemistry and physics at high school.

It would be better to say something like “60% of boys learn best by doing, but 80% of girls learn best by looking or listening”. (I just made those numbers up.) Then the scope of the statement would be clear. If you want to split a class by the way they learn best, then split the class by the way they learn best, not by gender.

And one more thing. This is based on a true story. If a girl has messy handwriting, and her teacher exclaims “You write like a boy!”, then any boys who hear this will be inclined to think Well, if my handwriting can’t get any better than this, and my teacher doesn’t expect it to anyway, then why should I try?. The mere statement of a prejudice can act to reinforce or even create the alleged correlation. Not good.

So just be careful next time you want to say something like “Women are bad drivers” or “Asians are more intelligent”.

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