In a fascinating experiment led by the psychologists Marjorie Rhodes and Sarah-Jane Leslie, four-year olds were shown pictures of a diverse set of individuals (black and white, male and female, Latino and Asian, old and young) and told they all belonged to an identity group called the Zarpies.
The psychologists then started describing to the children what Zarpies are like. With one group of four-year olds, the psychologists used sentences like, “Zarpies are scared of ladybugs.” Phrases constructed in this way are called ‘generics’.
With the other group of children, the psychologists spoke with more care and specificity. Instead of using a generic, they would say, “Look at this Zarpie! He’s afraid of ladybugs.”
A few days later, they showed all of the children a picture of a Zarpie and said it made buzzing sounds.
Fascinating differences emerged between the children who were previously told the generics - “Zarpies are scared of ladybugs” - and those who were not.
The children who were told the generics were quick to believe that all Zarpies made buzzing sounds, that this was an essential trait that Zarpies were born with, and that because all Zarpies shared some traits they would inevitably also share other traits.
In a piece in the Huffington Post , Rhodes summarizes the main conclusions that she and her colleagues drew from their research:
“Seemingly incongruous generic sentences, including sentences such as ‘girls have long hair’ or ‘Italians love pasta’ … prepare children to develop more stereotypes … (and) generics can lead children to view stereotypes as inevitable and natural – to believe, for example, that girls will always dislike math, regardless of the environment they grow up in.”
It seems to me that large swaths of the culture war discussion about Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford falls into the Zarpie trap.
I want to be very clear: I am not referring here to what happened that night, about which I believe the compelling, composed, credible and courageous Dr. Blasey Ford. Nor am I specifically writing about the very significant changes in our culture that we need to make around sexual assault, sexual objectification and patriarchy.
I am writing about the way the talk has tended about certain groups in light of the Kavanaugh hearings. No doubt every discourse circle – progressive, conservative and centrist – has the problems that I’m about to outline, but as I operate principally in progressive circles, I will focus my criticisms there. (I was raised with the belief that you hold your own folks to the highest standards).
Consider Paul Krugman’s recent New York Times column ‘The Angry White Male Caucus’ as a case in point.
Krugman writes about his time at Yale, “I (encountered) people like Kavanaugh – hard-partying sons of privilege who counted on their own connections to insulate them from any consequences from their actions …”
Krugman Zarpies (yes, I am turning it into a verb) entire groups of people, which is to say that he assigns them traits as a group that are essentialist and then connects those traits to behaviors that he suggests inevitably flow from them.
A quintessential Zarpie phrase that Krugman uses: “cut from the same cloth”.
Reflect for a moment on what that phrase means when assigned to a human being: because these people all belong to something we think of as an identity group, they are literally made entirely of the same material. They share the same traits and always will, and those traits lead them to always do all the same things. The first part of that is essentialist, the second is deterministic, all of it contributes to stereotypes and most of those turn out to be unhelpful in describing the wonderful diversity of the world.
Consider that Krugman also attended Yale, and his not-so-convincing reason for why he didn’t turn out like Kavanaugh is because he “very much ran with the nerds”.
Krugman’s colleague at The Times, Ross Douthat, could not help but point out the irony of a set of journalists who went to the same schools as Kavanaugh falling over themselves to Zarpie the schools (because these are wombs of privilege, they invariably produce creatures who act in the ugly ways that Kavanaugh did) while doing a set of circus tricks to unZarpie themselves.
I dislike Zarpie-ing for all sorts of reasons. One, when you Zarpie groups you don’t like, you are setting yourself up to learn less about them. I don’t think that’s a good way for humans to interact, or citizens to live in a democracy together or for intellectuals to approach the world.
Two, in my experience, people tend to start out by Zarpie-ing groups that they don’t like (privileged white men all have ABC traits and act in XYZ ways), but soon enough the Zarpie brush starts to paint the groups they do like (people of color and women have ABC traits and act in XYZ ways). I’m not sure that’s as helpful to women and people of color as it might initially seem. I thought Wesely Morris’s recent piece in The New York Times dealt with this challenge brilliantly.
Ultimately, Zarpie thinking and Zarpie talking is terrible for a diverse democracy because, as David Brooks writes, it “leads to an epidemic of bigotry. Bigotry involves creating a stereotype about a disfavored group and then applying that stereotype to an individual you’ve never met. It was bigotry against Jews that got Alfred Dreyfus convicted in 1894. It was bigotry against young black males that got the Central Park Five convicted in 1990. It was bigotry against preppy lacrosse players that led to the bogus Duke lacrosse scandal.”
When we speak of privileged white men in an essentialist and deterministic way, we are not actually operating in the category of privileged white men. Rather, we are operating in the land of the Zarpies, which is to say, in the logic model of ‘All identity groups can be spoken of in essentialist and deterministic ways. The identity groups I don’t like have qualities I don’t like and therefore naturally do things I don’t like; the groups I do like have qualities that I like and therefore naturally do things I like.’
I don’t think this ultimately helps any identity group, either the ones that I’m given to favoring (women and minority groups) and want to assign positive traits to, or the ones that I do not incline towards and might want to tag with negative qualities.
I am 100% sure it does not help a diverse democracy.