When I grew up in the 1950’s it was common to hear jokes about “women drivers,” the implication being that for genetic reasons women just didn’t have the coordination required to drive well, a task that obviously should be left to men who understood mechanical things.
Whenever a man saw a car make a left turn from the right-hand lane or wander over the center line he would check out the driver and if a female was at the wheel, he would mutter “Women drivers!” But, when the guy encountered a woman, or a hundred women, driving a car perfectly normally, they were ignored.
Over the years I’ve noticed that people see only what they expect to see and they notice only what they expect to find. If you think women are bad drivers you will seize on any example of a woman driving poorly as proof of your theory. Conversely, you will ignore all the women who drive perfectly well because they don’t fit your expectations.
And if one day you are forced to acknowledge someone who doesn’t fit the stereotype, well, they’re just one of the good ones; they’re the exception that proves the rule.
At some point I realized that you can prove any crazy idea you want if you credit all the evidence in favor of your position and ignore any evidence to the contrary. That’s how lies become truth; myths become facts and we deceive ourselves into believing the lies that we want to believe are true.
I’ve noticed that two words give this practice away, as clear, if you know what to listen for, as church bells in the night. They are: “Those people.”
“You have to watch your back when you’re around those people.”
“Those people are good with a dollar.”
“Those people don’t want to work.”
“All those people want to do is lay around and collect welfare OR fight and have sex OR whatever.”
“Those people sure know how to dance.”
“You can’t trust those people.”
“Those people would as soon lie to you as look at you.”
And the one that tells you it’s okay to do any unfair, nasty thing you want to them because:
“Those people aren’t like us.”
People who want to have opinions without thought, who want to believe lies that make them feel better about themselves by feeling worse about others, will only see whatever confirms their beliefs and never see anything that contradicts them.
As a lawyer in Silicon Valley I’ve had clients from every part of the world – Viet Nam, Ireland, China, France, Germany, India, Iran, Yemen, Mexico, Chile, as well as the USA. They’ve been white, black, brown, Muslim, Christian, Catholic, Shinto, you name it. And what I’ve learned over the years is that there is no correlation, zero, between decent, generous, honorable, smart, hardworking people and any particular racial or religious group. I’ve encountered wonderful people and terrible people who were as randomly members of any one racial, ethnic or religious group as raisons in a pudding.
If there is one belief I would want to share with anyone who is tempted to embed the phrase “those people” in their conversation it is this:
To paraphrase Walt Kelly, “We have met those people, and those people are us.”