The current furor over the Dubai Ports World deal brings to light an important aspect of our nature as human beings. We’re the purveyors of prejudice, all of us, which is far from the evil thing it is always made out to be. Indeed, it is the utility of our prejudice that tells us that it is indeed legitimate to argue against the close proximity of Arabs (an ethnicity with a clear record of anti-US sentiment and actions) to our ports. Let’s consider the idea from an evolutionary perspective.
The ability to group individual entities into categories was of paramount importance in the early days of our species. For example, suppose your caveman buddy got eaten by a lion. Then, a few weeks later, you’re cruising through the bush and you see a tiger. Now, you’ve never seen one before, so you have no frame of reference for this animal. Or do you? You know what a lion looks like, and this gigantic cat looks a lot like it, just with stripes. Two possibilities – you either generalize (that is, invoke some level of prejudice) that this cat is likely to be dangerous (like the lion is) or you give Tigger a fair shake, assuming that he is probably harmless. Who lives in this scenario? You got it – the prejudiced caveman, the one who successfully generalizes. That’s basically where we are today.
Our minds are equipped to generalize like crazy. It’s an extricable part of the way our minds do business. Of course, as the cheeky old saying goes – all generalizations are bad, including this one. So what are we to make of this? Should we see our tendency to generalize as an anachronistic holdover from our caveman days, an attribute that should be rationally stricken from our mental repertoire? Or should we be happy that we have it? I say the latter.
This does not mean that we should embrace all generalization to the detriment of evaluating individuals objectively. It isn’t an intellectual milestone to suppose that we can both generalize and be objective in evaluating individuals. Prejudice need not dictate actions. I can assume when a kid dressed in a “thug” getup approaches that he’s a complete moron (most are), but I can easily hide that assumption and treat him fairly (while secretly waiting for him to confirm my bias). Is this shady? Is this being duplicitous? Maybe, but everyone does it.
Our experiences shape our prejudices. There’s no way around it. The more enlightened among us manage to set prejudices aside when dealing with unknown individuals, but that doesn’t mean they go away. It just means we don’t act on them. But when the question is about a group, the best tool we have is our ability to generalize. if we do not for fear of misjudging an individual or two, we virtually guarantee that we’ll misjudge the whole situation. In other words, if we worry that the tiger we’ve come across in the bush is the one sweetie of tiger in the area, we’re not likely to live to regret it.
This brings us full circle to the political and national security hubbub over the ports. My take is that it makes exactly zero sense to do the deal. Sun Tzu didn’t say, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” for nothing. Even if every worker for the Dubai Ports World organization is an NSA-approved America-lover, the fact is that those who would do us harm in the name of Allah are nothing if not patient – America-lover today; going to home to Allah and 72 virgins two years from now. So, it’s fair to suggest that giving one of these potential terrorists daily exposure to the affairs at our ports is just about the height of stupidity.
Now, apologists for the deal are saying that the Arabs really pose no threat because they’re only going to be executing stevedore duties. I’ll confess that I don’t know where those duties begin and leave off, but I’ll hazard a guess that they entail being at the ports all day, right next to the customs offices and the security shift-changes, and so on. Therefore, we have people with the one completely common characteristic of every terrorist involved in 9-11 (being Arab) potentially being given access to our ports, with the ability to observe our security measures. Is it me? What kind of boob buys into this?
The irony of the whole situation is that many politicians who have heretofore decried discrimination (the execution of prejudice) when it comes to racial profiling and the like are now vehemently objecting to the ports deal. Whether they are being politically opportunistic, seeing an opportunity to bash Bush, or genuine in their concern over the issue, it doesn’t matter. (We can’t trust them anyway. Remember?) The fact is that the basis for any real objection to the ports deal is founded in prejudiced thinking, and that, friends and neighbors, is a good thing.
Too bad the politically-charged landscape (and often a supremely misguided worldview) prevents those who are against the ports deal from recognizing that what works for ports also works for crime. If three weeks went by and every night on the news, we heard stories about women being raped by a guy in a red sweater, would it be wrong to be on the lookout for men in red sweaters? Of course not. It’d be the only sensible thing to do. Sadly, when it comes to crime, where so many believe the extenuating circumstance (and there always is one) trumps the action, the tendency to discriminate based upon reasonable prejudice is vilified as horrific and unjust. The result is that the guy in the red sweater never worries about getting caught…or even getting a different colored sweater.
One thing is for sure, whether you’re talking about domestic crime or national security, no law or policy will ever eliminate the human tendency to evaluate the world in generalized, prejudicial ways. It’s a constraint, as Thomas Sowell would say, and a good one. Best to try to work with it. All other options are futile.