You’ve been working with a guy named Joe for almost a year now. He’s a good worker, cheerful with a sense of humor. You’ve gone to lunch with him here and there. You’re not quite friends, still more acquaintances, but one day, you’re invited to a cook-out at his house. At the house, everyone is relaxed and having a good time when Joe starts ranting about another race. He talks about how they’re all messed up, nothing good comes from them, and how they need major help. You speak up and say, “It’s not like that. What about our coworker Sarah? She’s smart and does great work! Don’t judge the whole race.” He brushes it off and says, “Yeah, there are always exceptions to the rule.” For a second, you think about responding again but decide not to and instead, make your last rounds and leave.
Drawing the Line
Encountering someone who not only holds an opinion that is in conflict with our own but one that we believe is an immoral stance can be difficult. Some may hold strong opinions and feel the need to firmly engage, while others may feel it’s not their place and don’t say anything. Firmly engaging can quickly turn into strong emotions and fights, while passively not saying anything adds no value at best.
Even after Joe displayed a prejudiced or racist way of thinking, many would continue to be cordial with him. Some may even still be friends, while others would steer clear and stop associating all together. The stronger our stance, the more we might see that anyone else who is still being cordial as also questionable: “Why would they be cordial if they were morally against his beliefs?”
Now imagine you’re Joe’s boss and in charge of hiring, firing, raises, and promotions. It’s promotion time, and Joe hasn’t displayed any of that negative behavior at work and is one of the best workers. Would you promote Joe? Would you give Joe a raise? Would you let Joe be in a lead role over Sarah, who is of the race he doesn’t think highly of? What if Joe’s social media page has negative commentary, videos, and posts about Sarah’s race?
Ignorance Is Bliss
If Joe were to stay quiet about his beliefs, there would be no questions. We’d promote him and give him a raise for being one of the best workers. We would never know how those implicit biases could be impacting his judgement more than the rest of us. Normally, when we’re talking about personal beliefs, we’d say it doesn’t matter and that they are entitled to their own opinion. However, if that opinion seems to be immoral or skewed to a strong enough extent, it becomes harder to not let it impact our judgement.
As a result, large organizations generally try to avoid decorating an office with controversial topics and beliefs. Doing so keeps the work environment neutral such that it doesn’t skew judgement and work tasks. In general, an organization can have its own rules, and anyone is free to affiliate or leave the organization.
Platform for Immorality
It makes sense that without a platform to be heard or express thoughts, there’s no real chance of disagreements, arguments, or any other discrimination. Unfortunately, even if we recognize that echo chambers are bad and working to understand is ideal when it comes to immoral issues, it just doesn’t feel right to give immorality a platform or listen to it at all.
One thing to help bring context is to acknowledge our own imperfections. We are only human and don’t always adhere perfectly to ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ We are always making mistakes. We sometimes have thoughts that pull us in a direction where we don’t want to go. Knowing that we make mistakes, is there ever a point where we should discriminate based on someone’s immoral thoughts or beliefs alone?
It can be hard to nail down a consistent definition of some ambiguous words, especially in psychology and other social sciences. So let’s use “generalizations” to cover any opinions or beliefs about someone or something. Those generalizations can be positive and complimentary or negative and critical.
For example, here are a few generalizing statements: “Group A has low intelligence,” “Group B is fast and athletic,” “Group C is good at math,” “Group D is ugly.”
If it isn’t immediately apparent, all of these generalizations make statements about the other groups at the same time. If Group A has low intelligence and is a subset of a larger group “Humans,” then everyone else must have more intelligence.
Set Theory and Samples
If we look at a more “positive” statement, “Group C is good at math,” that also automatically infers that the others outside of C aren’t good at math. This mathematical correlation exists whenever we have related groups and is why both positive and negative generalizations have to be made with care. Performing logical deductions based on groups is essentially set theory. It’s a foundational concept in math that formalizes handling collections of objects.
When we use our generalizations to compare samples to an overall population, we are drawing statistical inferences, just not very formal ones. For example, in our earlier scenario, Joe believes that Sarah was the exception and not included in his set of crappy people. How big is that set? Let’s assume it’s 10 percent of the U.S. population or 30 million people. If we ask Joe how many people he has interacted with of that race, we can compare that to the number of people in the overall set to identify a general probability. If Joe has directly interacted with 30 people of that group, then his sample size is extremely small.
Why this matters is because his inference or judgement based on 30 people can still be applied logically, even if he’s wrong. His judgement of Sarah as an exception should have an equal effect, which would equate to a million or more good people, depending on his “confidence” in his original assumptions.
To reiterate two important concepts: 1.) Positive generalizations often automatically create negative generalizations, having the same ultimate result as something like racism. 2.) Small sample sizes require extremely high confidence in the assumptions; any exceptions or outliers should have an equally large effect.
Judgement of Joe
What if we used the idea of generalizations to pick apart what we know about Joe? We know he’s a good worker, and we know that he believes something that we consider immoral or that we don’t agree with. How many people feel the way Joe feels? Unfortunately, there is no way to find out, but let’s say 1% of the U.S. population feels the way he feels. That’s three million people. How many people have we interacted with and heard firsthand that they are prejudice toward a group of people? How many of them were good workers? How many of them discriminated while on the job?
Some of us fall into the biased trap of thinking things like: “The only time I’ve ever encountered racism in all my life is from that race”. Instead of understanding the irony in a simple statement, the obvious is clouded in bias. We ignore the small sample sizes of our own encounters to suit our own beliefs. If we’re really stubborn, we’ll use statistics to confirm our biases instead of using them to disprove our biases.
The fact that Joe has shown no discrimination on the job and is a good worker indicates that we should not make any judgement about a promotion based on his personal beliefs. We may be right that Joe will eventually make a mistake and discriminate on the job. However until he takes unjust action, we shouldn’t. This is a very controversial statement to make if we take this same statement and apply it to police officers in today’s climate. We simply do not want prejudiced police officers making life and death decisions, which we will address in a moment.
Actions Versus Beliefs
In the ignorance is bliss section, I posed a question: Is there ever a point where we should discriminate based on someone’s immoral thoughts or beliefs alone? No, not if we’re trying to be reasonable and just. The most reasonable decisions about someone’s beliefs should only be made based on their actions. Anything else is not only subjective but riddled with complex possibilities.
It makes sense, for example, that we cannot sue someone for being racist, sexist, or even hateful. They have to act on those beliefs or infer action in a way that leads to something unjust. Thoughts and beliefs themselves are not unjust in most cases.
The thought of a hateful person working alongside us is not a pleasing one. But it’s a fact of life: we will work alongside some people who have negative thoughts and feelings about others. However, until they take action or make explicit intentions about what they will do, we shouldn’t judge their beliefs. They have the freedom to hate and to have whatever beliefs they want without fear of retribution or our own inverse discrimination, at least if we’re talking about freedom alone.
Screening and Protecting Freedom
As we mentioned, we don’t want a hateful police officer responsible for protecting someone’s life. Some jobs need to have screening with respect to personal beliefs. Each job screening must take into consideration the population it serves. Furthermore, the screening must be explicit as to the requirements, such that everyone is aware “personal beliefs” is definitely included and violation will result in actions. The screening needs to be very thoughtful, however; otherwise, we can lose context and affect freedom very easily.
Let’s assume we don’t want any potential president to also hate the country they run for. This makes sense in the strictest sense. But how strong is the hate, and what if the reason the potential president hates the country is because of all the problems the country has? What if she’s trying to change the country into something that is more positive and something to be loved instead?
What if, in our scenario, Joe has negative beliefs because his parents were killed in a race crime? He may feel those feelings but have a personal code that doesn’t allow him to hurt someone of that race and actively works to not discriminate despite his feelings.
The examples are endless. These scenarios should help us pause. If we have to screen for job purposes, then do so with great care and understanding of the entire picture and not automatically succumb to “cancel”-like feelings.
Intent to Harm
Unless someone shows the intention of harming others, we must withhold judgement and discrimination. We must not hinder or restrain them, for that is what freedom means.
The only problem with this is that beliefs always occur before action, and so it can be debated that beliefs themselves are harmful, which puts the entire concept of freedom in jeopardy.
For example, let’s pick on another controversial topic: abortion. Those who are pro-choice are essentially committing genocide through their actions according to those who are pro-life. While being pro-choice by itself isn’t an action, what if they convinced all the decision makers that their belief is the correct one? The lawmakers who allow abortion would be the ones to “allow genocide,” while the protesters and thought leaders are only exercising their freedoms.
Every politically charged issue has a dichotomy like this. The downfall of a country is a very harmful thing. Ruining the economy and passing bad laws will harm millions. Taking this perspective makes every political belief directly related to either harming others or not harming others. We have intent acted upon every time we vote or try to influence others.
Of course, we would only see the intent to harm if we had an opposing belief. Political beliefs, no matter how strongly we may believe they will or won’t harm the nation and ultimately others, are subjective and not usually the same as a true intent to harm. And if we think they are, we must let democracy flush it out.
Freedom Is Not Subjective
Societies squash freedom because of all the things we have discussed here. It’s very difficult to see an immoral issue that we believe is ultimately harmful and be ok with it. It’s hard to see how restricting even hateful speech and thoughts makes the entire concept of freedom break.
The bottom line is that we must always allow for a platform of thought and discourse. We also must not discriminate based on those thoughts. Slavery, women’s rights, immigration, refugees, war, and other injustices throughout history would have no platform if we simply silenced or sidelined whoever spoke things that indicated an “intense passionate dislike” for something or someone. Sometimes that hate is what gets heard the clearest, which can elicit discourse and understanding.
The next time you encounter someone who is hateful, engage with respectful discourse. As much as possible, be ok with them being hateful, racist, sexist, pro-gun, anti-gun, pro-choice, pro-life, socialist, fascist, snowflake, LGBT, atheist, carnivore, vegan, CrossFitter, or anything else. Having that tolerance and acceptance makes us and, ultimately, society stronger.