On some imaginary distant planet called Izzot, you can judge people by appearances. The green people are the strongest and fastest, and can fly. The blue people are best at math, and are prone to emotional outbursts. The males of the purple people are actually not much smarter than young human children, but the females are of adult-human-level intelligence, while the neuters have even more powerful brains. This means that if you know a few demographic details about a person from Izzot, you can make some assumptions about their physical or mental characteristics, personalities, and skills, and you will most likely be correct. In other words, technically, on Izzot, race-based and sex-based stereotypes are supported by hard science. Does that sound like a horrible place to live?
Actually, Izzot society is a lot nicer than most societies on Earth. This may come as a surprise, because of Earth’s longstanding problem wherein people try to use stereotypes to inform how they value and interact with other people, which hurts their feelings and makes effective communication difficult. The problem continues even though information about an individual Earthling’s race and sex has been scientifically debunked as a way of reliably predicting their aptitudes and personality traits. If stereotypes on Izzot are supported by science, more people would use them, which would surely mean more hurt feelings and more harm to society due to poor communication, right? What makes Izzot so pleasant?
It’s not because the people are predictable. Far from it, actually. Even though many of their abilities are easily predicted, people on Izzot don’t have any assigned stations in society. Just because a purple or green person may not be as good at math as a blue person doesn’t mean they can’t love math and want to get a job using it. Just because a purple or blue person isn’t as strong as a green person doesn’t mean they can’t want a job that involves manual labor. Everyone on Izzot is free to pursue whatever career they choose. If Izzot doesn’t enforce conformity and social stations in order to stifle conflict between different types of people, what’s preventing the conflict?
As it happens, society on Izzot flourishes because the people there follow these rules for treating everyone with respect:
- Always give people a chance to prove you wrong about them, except where you have good reason to believe doing so would pose a serious risk.
- Even if you think you know someone, people change. If you don’t allow yourself to update your beliefs based on new information, your obsolete picture of the world will cause problems.
- Show everyone respect, especially when it’s difficult. To show respect to a person means going to reasonable lengths to demonstrate that you care about the person’s feelings and to interact with them in a way that they find comfortable.
- Showing respect to a person does not mean you must agree with them or help them with their goals. Indeed, showing respect usually makes it easier to oppose a person’s efforts.
- Situations in which showing respect will harm rather than help are extremely rare.
- The best way to show respect varies between people, but the etiquette of a society supplies good general principles with which to start.
- If you have reasonable confidence that you can predict something about someone, even if it’s only based on their appearance, by all means use that to improve your ability to put them at ease, show them respect, and keep them safe. Don’t go overboard trying to anticipate them, though. That doesn’t put anyone at ease—it just makes them self-conscious. This rule does not supersede rule 1.
- Example: If someone’s name or attire indicates they probably have religious dietary restrictions, and they order a dish that contains a taboo ingredient, and you think it might have been a mistake and that they would want to know about it, you might casually mention the ingredient to them in the process of making small talk about the dish.
- Try to adapt your activities and systems to include others who might otherwise be excluded because of physical form, health, or language or cultural barriers.
- Empathy mindset can help you establish bonds with people who are different, by individualizing interactions.
- Tactics mindset can also help by cleverly repurposing twisting paths to open possibilities that weren’t obviously available.
- Don’t expect rule 4 to always be feasible. It’s based on empathy, tactics, and other chaos-aligned mindsets, and as such doesn’t lend itself well to rules or systematization at all. Focus on what people can do, entice others to help, but don’t try to restructure everything based on an inconvenience, and don’t force people to experience the same outcomes in all things.
- No matter how many people have done something, nor for how long, it doesn’t mean it’s right. It’s important to learn about cultural context and sociological factors before making judgment calls on whether a practice is harmful to people, but ethical principles are the same for everyone. The hard part is learning enough about people to know how best to apply them.
If you follow these rules and practice using empathy and related mindsets, you can avoid being a bigot anywhere, even on a planet where you can judge by appearances and be right more often than not. The rules apply to how you treat everyone, even if you think you already know them, and even if you’re assessing their choices and ethical character rather than their more superficial qualities.
Neither rules nor empathy alone can make a society a good one. But semantics (rules) and empathy together, as communication, give interactions at all levels the chance to be the best they can be.
It’s possible that some activity which has a population composed almost entirely of a particular type of person will develop a culture derived from other traits correlated with that person. For example, on Earth, a male-dominated activity may develop rituals or slang derived from male experiences or physiology. On Izzot, greenball is a sport mostly played by green people, and it has developed a culture that references wings and uses them for communication (having “good wings” refers to speed and initiative; touching wings is the equivalent of a high-five; the victory dance usually involves flying), even though playing the sport itself doesn’t involve wings. It’s a bit inane and obnoxious, but then again, much of what we call “culture” is inane and obnoxious. It doesn’t always cause problems, but when it does, things get complicated.
When a person of a different demographic shows up to participate in an activity hitherto dominated by a single demographic, there will inevitably be awkwardness because they will have trouble participating in the culture, even if they are able and willing to participate in the activity. An unusually athletic blue person might be capable of playing greenball, but will be unable to touch wings or participate in a classical victory dance.
Sometimes this awkwardness dissuades the newcomer from joining, or the culture from accepting them. This is a suboptimal outcome from a societal standpoint, because it results in stagnation and lost opportunities. The activity’s culture doesn’t get fresh perspective, and any newcomers who don’t immediately fit in will not get the experience of the activity. Ideally, however, those involved will have some form of empathy, and some combination of the following will happen:
- The newcomer learns to participate in the culture they’re entering as best they can, and is comfortable with it.
- The blue greenball player can participate in wing-touching with their arms.
- References to them “having wings” will be taken with no offense, as the figurative language that it is.
- The existing culture treats the newcomer with respect, adapts variations on etiquette and rituals where necessary, and is comfortable with it.
- The greenball team’s victory dance is adapted to account for a participant who cannot fly.
- The existing culture gradually changes to become less centered on the majority demographic, making it easier for other (qualified) newcomers from other demographics to participate, or to develop and adapt their own variant activities. It tends to be beneficial for society that cultures intermingle and mix through shared activities because of the opportunities such mixing creates for cross-cultural learning and for innovation within the activity.
- Greenball players start referring to speed and initiative as “feet”, “legs”, or just as speed and initiative, especially where blue players are involved.
- They start using high-fives (well, high-fours) with hands, instead of using wing-touches, though wing-touches are still used between green players on occasion.
- Some more blue people start to play greenball, and learn enough to start a league for less athletically gifted blue people. They don’t care to change the name of the game.
- Purple people can’t play greenball because they don’t have the necessary limbs for running, jumping, kicking, throwing, and catching. This mildly frustrates some of them, but ultimately they have other desires to pursue.
Sometimes physical equipment may only be designed for one type of person. That’s when it’s inconveniently necessary for pioneers to come in with expensive customized equipment and break ground. We’ve all heard the stories. The very first blue player had to get step-stools to reach their locker, and had to have expensive custom uniforms made for them.
A newcomer’s influence on the activity may go beyond mere equipment. If a blue player made it onto an otherwise all-green team, that probably means they’re not only athletically gifted, but also that the coach is confident they can develop strategies and tactics to take advantage of the blue player’s much smaller size. It’s easy to predict that some rival coaches will complain about having to develop entire new strategies to account for just one rival team. If they want to continue being able to use the same types of strategies they’ve always used, that’s lazy of them, but they can advocate for the stagnation of their sport if they want.
On the other hand, if the blue player is actually a huge advantage that guarantees victory and makes the game much less fun as a result, those rival coaches might have a good point. In that situation, we start getting away from ethical questions and into true politics. With politics mindset, it’s just a matter of how many people want to play or watch each type of gameplay, and how much they want it. Advocates for and against mixed green/blue teams will try to persuade other people to ally with them and negotiate with each other to get more of what they want. Maybe there will be one league for green people, one league for blue people, and one mixed league, but sometimes such easy compromises aren’t always possible. There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong direction to go in, either. Ultimately, it’s just a game, and no matter what the final decision is, there are other things to enjoy. As long as people are equipped to ask intelligent questions about the issue, advocate respectfully for their preferred solutions, and recognize when a question is ethical and when it’s political, my job is done.
In sum, the parable of Izzotian greenball shows there are ways of breaking down the walls put up by the cultures of exclusivity that humanity has developed, but it will take a commitment to understanding the individual perspectives involved, as close an understanding to objective reality as we can get, the willingness to be compassionate and help people even though we don’t have to, and the courage to accept that sometimes one’s preference is not the only way.
Izzot gets its name from the “is-ought” problem. As just about any existentialist philosopher will tell you, you can’t derive an “ought” from an “is”. Descriptive statements do not imply normative statements. In other words, you can observe facts, but those observations alone can’t provide you an answer to the question of what you “should” do. Any such answer has to be based on knowledge of what you already want.
If you thought at first that Izzot must be a terrible place, it is probably because you’re used to the idea of people using stereotypes to try to justify their mistreatment of others, as if the knowledge that they claim to have about other people requires disrespecting those people, or nullifies the ethical principles that call for respecting them.
Ethical principles, at least in the system I use, are derived from the assumed goal of creating a society where it is more feasible for everyone to achieve their desires, with the constraints that the society must be sustainable and capable of adapting and improving. Without people who are mature, respectful, and responsible, such a society cannot exist. That’s why these rules are so important.