Tolerance (by )

Recently, there was a bit of a hoo-haa about a blog the Guardian's travel section was planning on running:

(Max, 19, hits the road)[]

A lot of people responded with reactions varying from amusement to irritation at the Guardian for this project: it was alleged that a naive, over privileged, kid with delusions of coolness was going off on a textbook finding-oneself journey to the East in their gap year, and that he'd landed a job writing it up for the Guardian purely through "daddy's connections". Playing into stereotypes of the rich trust-funded naive types with an over-inflated sense of their own worth, fuelled by parental influence and money giving them the illusion of success. Who later develop into Nathan Barley.

So, Max's blog brought about reactions of anger, both aimed at him and (more so) at the Guardian for apparently allowing nepotism (Max's father is a writer who had done assorted bits of work for the Guardian, so presumably the job was landed through his connections).

But this in turn brought about a second wave of opinion, that people were being cruel in attacking Max, since it wasn't his fault he was young and naive; and his family claimed that he was not going abroad on his parent's money, but that'd he'd saved up his own earnings to do so. The Guardian claimed that Max was playing up to the stereotype with tongue in cheek. In other words, the identification of him with the stereotype was challenged.

Which leads to an interesting point.

One the one hand, there's a valid case that it's wrong to prejudge people and say "They match a negative stereotype, so I will guess that they are not nice".

Yet on the other hand, in this age of information overload, people do have to filter their inputs fairly aggressively (you should see the kinds of rules my spam filter applies to incoming email; it's downright Nazist) to sift the wheat from the chaff. So there is a certain social obligation for people to be aware of stereotypes and avoid falling into them, in the knowledge that if they do so, their behaviour is likely to be interpreted in a negative light.

Clearly, we need some kind of middle ground.

If somebody keeps ringing your doorbell, then whenever you open the door, they just stand and stare at you, there soon comes a point when you are probably justified in stopping answering the door to them and considering them a bit weird (even though they might, in principle, be a perfectly nice person who was just suffering an extreme anxiety disorder, and actually is trying to get your attention to tell you your car's on fire). Not being able to extrapolate things about a person from the limited information you have about them would clearly result in a lot of inefficiency in our dealings with other people.

Yet, on the other hand, it looks like people were unfair on young Max; from his privileged background he may not have realised that there was a certain stereotype surrounding people who acted like him, or (if it WAS tongue in cheek) he might not have realised just how much the rest of the population finds that stereotype irritating, and how badly they'd react. Perhaps people were too quick to connect him to that stereotype from what little information they had.

And, of course, we all know what happens when people extrapolate a stereotype too far, particularly when tinged by hate; we end up with gas chambers and ethnic cleansing.

An interesting case study of this is in the scientific community. Currently, if you try and publish a paper mentioning antigravity, aliens, or the supernatural, no matter how sane you are, you're likely to be labelled insane and rapidly de-careered.

The reason for this is that there are people who sit and, for various reasons, formulate wild theories about such things, based on little or no real evidence, mainly driven by an inner desire for such things to be true. And they can raise a lot of noise trying to overcome what they see as censorship of their ideas. I myself have run into Archimedes Plutonium online, who espouses a rather unusual theory of the Universe, and continually tried to defend it in physics discussion forums, getting in the way of more useful discussions. And there's the legendary Gene Ray with his Time Cube theory.

However, this has caused too much of a backlash. Just try, for example, writing a paper analysing the claims of these folks, looking for possible grains of truth they may have stumbled across, in the manner that books like "The Science of Harry Potter" consider possible scientific explanations of the fantastical properties of a fictional world of magic, and you run a serious risk of being labelled as One Of Them.

Which stifles innovation, to say the least.

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