Now We're Talking 1: Judging a Book By Its Cover

>> Monday, September 14, 2009

Well, yesterday's soapbox elicited some good comments, some good discussion and some good points I hadn't made. Some I agreed with and some I didn't but all were thoughtful, which is what I'm looking for when I stir the pot.

Given the excellent fodder, I'm going to follow up on some of the side issues I and my fabulous commenters brought up.

Today, it's thinking one can make any judgments about who someone is with a glance.

Technically, of course, we're all supposed to know better. "Don't judge a book by it's cover," we've heard or "Beauty is only skin deep." But the reality is that people still do it. And not just over fat.

Celebrities, with little or nothing to recommend them but their appearance are still treated with adulation and fascination. Or people make assumptions about who someone is based on their color, their clothes, their tattoos, their weight, their apparent nationality, their height, their age, their build, their gender...

How many billions are poured into hair colors, plastic surgeries, balding cures, make-up, uncomfortable and unhealthy shoes, etc? This is money we aren't spending on health care, aren't spending on food or rent or, in fact, anything that produces anything or does any real good. But we do it because so many people make decisions on who they want to be around on appearance. Or we think they do. Either way...

Of course many of those prejudices people won't admit to. What, you don't think making decisions about someone based on appearance is a prejudice? Prejudice, by definition, is " preconceived judgment or opinion (2) : an adverse opinion or leaning formed without just grounds or before sufficient knowledge b : an instance of such judgment or opinion c : an irrational attitude of hostility directed against an individual, a group, a race, or their supposed characteristics" according to Merriam Webster. If you make decisions about someone's habits (that you've never seen) or their trustworthiness (although you've never talked to them) or their sexual prowess (without sleeping with them) based only on appearance, it's hard for me to see it as anything other than prejudice - but, hey, feel free to try to change my mind.

Of course many of those prejudices people won't admit to. People don't admit to "shielding" their children when they pass a black man or someone in a turban. But they do it. People don't admit to assuming someone who looks Latino is an immigrant (and illegal) or that he's uneducated. But they do. Let's face it, the number of derogatory terms and phrases out there that have to do with appearance should tell us something about our obsessions and how we equate appearance with merit.

It is more than impolite to assume the worst about someone at a glance. It's unjust. For example, there are literally millions of legal Latinos and Americans of Latino descent in America. But illegal aliens are one of the few remaining hategroups "allowed out" there in our politically correct world (along with fat people, Muslims, lawyers and athiests) so many are quick to assume and act accordingly. People want to have someone to blame for society's ills, so that they don't have to take credit for the ills themselves. As if hatred has ever done a damn thing to cure society's ills.

The tired mantra that gets trotted out is always anecdotal. "I've run into 'plenty' of so-and-so that were XYZ." So what? Even if 99/100 people who look "x" are "y," someone only has to misjudge one person to be in the wrong. Only one person has to go unhired (or get laid off first), or be taught a little less effectively in school or be pulled over unnecessarily, or be insulted by strangers or treated by contempt, or be on the receiving end of violence because of what that person is instead of who he is to have done an injustice. If we're rationalizing why we treat people who look a certain way with contempt or disgust, maybe the victims of our prejudices aren't the problem.

I mean, if, no matter how good a person you are, how intelligent or thoughtful, how considerate or educated, talented or honest, you are treated only on the way you look, what's the point of making yourself who you are? How are you the problem in this case? And how do one justify the work and sacrifice these people who happen look a certain way have to make to overcome the perceptions of what many see them to be if it does them no good?

After all, we may or may not be able to control what we are, but we can control who we are. And how we treat people has a great deal more to do with the latter than the former. Ironically, the opposite is the truth with appearance.

In my opinion.


  • Aron Sora

    To be honest, this is the reason why I wear corporate casual when I go out. I'm black, so when I wear jean I feel people judging me in a negative way. I can't explain it, I just feel it. So I wear that type of clothing to avoid the situation. Unfortunately for my social, people call me by my last name and I feel disconnected from my peers. But its worth it if I stops the judgment.

  • Stephanie B

    What a pity!

    It's a sad reflection on our society that such steps are necessary. The good news is that, in my experience, the science and technology fields are some of the most colorblind.

  • The Mother

    I am glad you included atheists in that list of folks who are immediately judged. We don't wear big As on our foreheads (yet), but the minute we open our mouths everything we say is assumed to be immoral.

    Someday, people will be judged as they should be, by what comes out of their mouths.

  • Quadmama

    I live in an area with a large Hispanic population. It drives me crazy when I have to listen to people complain about "the Mexicans." Most of "the Mexicans" have never lived in Mexico but are given that label simply because of their appearance.

  • Richard

    Ahh The Mother, you're more of an optimist than I gave you credit for. I don't really have much faith that people will ever be much different than they are today.

    I won't rule out the possibility that people may one day start judging others the way they should in all cases. But the available data doesn't support a high probability for that outcome. ;)

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