The world is forever spawning Damned Things
February 14, 2015 2:57 AM   Subscribe

So! The "bird" category has (somewhat culture specific) internal structure. For example, most Americans will agree that a robin is a better example of a bird than an albatross, and an albatross is a better bird than an ostrich. (And while bats are not birds, they are better birds than horses are, and horses are better birds than refrigerators are; so the gradations continue to some extent outside the category boundary).
Let's talk about category structure and oppression: how the way we think about categories feeds into social oppression and justice.
posted by MartinWisse (51 comments total) 81 users marked this as a favorite
 
The linguistics here is solid. Eleanor Rosch is the pioneer of prototype theory, though it's probably best known from George Lakoff's books.

(I think there are some words that prototype theory doesn't work as well with-- mostly formulaic words used in technical fields, so they're not relevant to Narayan's argument.)

And I think the application to social categorization is pretty accurate. (We often hear that race is a social construct... to a linguist, that's true, but all words are a social construct. It's just not a big deal with "bird".)

It'd be interesting to know if anyone's researched how well you can re-prototype a word. My guess is that diversity of example does help... if you regularly see black people, then "people" starts to include black people.
posted by zompist at 3:24 AM on February 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


That was one of the best things I've read in a while. It truly expanded my thinking. The bird analogy is genius. Thank you.
posted by yesster at 3:38 AM on February 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


Very good, and I thought this part was especially helpful:
Example that I see all the time: “Trans women are awesome!” gets derailed with “ALL women are awesome!” By making the category “all women”, the derailer does not merely extend the statement to more people. No, by changing the category and evoking the new category's cisnormative prototypes, they change the subject entirely – recentering themselves and pushing trans women off to the margins.
Many of us knew something like this was happening when #blacklivesmatter was countered with #alllivesmatter on Twitter, but I haven't seen it explained so clearly before.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 4:41 AM on February 14, 2015 [32 favorites]


(Previously.)
posted by Pater Aletheias at 4:53 AM on February 14, 2015


Wow. This is great.
posted by Stynxno at 5:03 AM on February 14, 2015


I really wish I had more to add but I don't. It's one of those pieces that is causing my brain to jump around and one I feel is going to influence my thinking for years to come. It puts into words disjointed thoughts, feelings, and experiences I've had and that I've pushed back at for years but I always struggled to fully understand exactly what I was doing. And I think that's the normal experience for anyone who is caught being on the edge of category-central places. I've felt caught in that push and pull, knowing full well that at any moment, I could be marginalized at a moment notice, but also living the benefit of being allied with those category-central folks in ways that others don't. It's nice being able to give that limbo a name, structure, and flesh.
posted by Stynxno at 5:09 AM on February 14, 2015 [3 favorites]


Also, the (maybe weird) correlation that I immediately made in my own area of specialization is to the book of Leviticus in the Bible. Chapter 11 introduces distinctions between clean and unclean animals, and you get things like this:
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, 2 “Say to the Israelites: ‘Of all the animals that live on land, these are the ones you may eat: 3 You may eat any animal that has a divided hoof and that chews the cud.

4 “‘There are some that only chew the cud or only have a divided hoof, but you must not eat them. The camel, though it chews the cud, does not have a divided hoof; it is ceremonially unclean for you. 5 The hyrax, though it chews the cud, does not have a divided hoof; it is unclean for you. 6 The rabbit, though it chews the cud, does not have a divided hoof; it is unclean for you. 7 And the pig, though it has a divided hoof, does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. 8 You must not eat their meat or touch their carcasses; they are unclean for you.

9 “‘Of all the creatures living in the water of the seas and the streams you may eat any that have fins and scales. 10 But all creatures in the seas or streams that do not have fins and scales—whether among all the swarming things or among all the other living creatures in the water—you are to regard as unclean. 11 And since you are to regard them as unclean, you must not eat their meat; you must regard their carcasses as unclean. 12 Anything living in the water that does not have fins and scales is to be regarded as unclean by you.
People have tried to explain the reasons for these distinctions as being between animals that are safe to eat and unsafe to eat, but obviously there are tons of "unclean" animals that are fine to eat (catfish! shrimp! rabbits!) so that really doesn't hold up. I've read more persuasive arguments that these distinctions are basically arbitrary, but are intended as a kind of object lesson in drawing lines concerning what is accepted and what is not, so those can then be applied to humans. The idea of what is prototypical works very well here. Things with fins and scales are real fish, things without those may be like fish, but fish aren't like them. Things that have divided hooves and chew cud are real livestock, things that do not may be like cattle, but cattle aren't like them.

The very next chapter makes the move to humans explicit: "The Lord said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites: ‘A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period" (Leviticus 12:1).

This understanding--that food regulations are a stand-in for discrimination among certain types of people--is pretty clearly in mind in chapter 10 of the New Testament book of Acts when Peter is unwilling to accept non-Jewish people as potential members of the church and God sends him a vision.
He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”

“Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”

The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.
A bit later we get the point: "Then Peter began to speak: 'I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.'"

And that's the story of how Christians stopped making distinctions between who counts as fully human and who doesn't, and were never racist or sexist or otherwise bigoted again.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 5:14 AM on February 14, 2015 [47 favorites]


This seems logically consistent and conceptually sound but I am not sure what it means in terms of oppression and social justice. Words are a social construct and as such based on our socialization, experiences and inherent "need" to organize experiences/perceptions/objective reality into mangeable formats. Just as the identification of a robin/eagle as a prototype for birds in America it could easily be a chaffinch/crow in Ireland. There are also statements without any empirical verification--"Able neurotypical not-fat not-poor straight cis white anglophone American Christian men are considered to be prototypical humans (prototype here = privileged default). So. If you ask people to think of famous people, they will think first of famous able neurotypical not-fat not-poor straight cis white anglophone American Christian men. And their exceptions will normally fall outside this prototype in only one or two ways.. Is this true if you ask Black Americans, Hispanic Americans, etc. Black Lives Matter > All Lives Matter, sure because "Lives Matter" is the generic statement/prototype. if "allllivesmatter" then "blscklivesmatter" or "whitelivesmatter" as a correlate. Anyway-i must be missing something or something is being pushed to make a point that is self evident.
posted by rmhsinc at 5:15 AM on February 14, 2015


Great FPP, let's get the neuroscientists working on this right away.
posted by fraxil at 5:24 AM on February 14, 2015


Is this true if you ask Black Americans, Hispanic Americans, etc. Black Lives Matter > All Lives Matter, sure because "Lives Matter" is the generic statement/prototype. if "allllivesmatter" then "blscklivesmatter" or "whitelivesmatter" as a correlate. Anyway-i must be missing something or something is being pushed to make a point that is self evident.

I think you might be missing the concept behind points 4 and 5 from the post, rmhsinc.

4) People's idea of similarity is asymmetric: they will, for example, say that albatrosses are more like robins than robins are like albatrosses.

5) People reason from the prototype to the whole category, but not the other way around. So, for example (according to experimental results), people reason that if all the robins on an island caught a disease, the ducks would catch it too; but not vice versa.


If I'm reading the post right:
As the similarities are asymmetrical, if you say 'All lives matter', you mean by default that cis/white/able etc. lives matter, and that non-cis/whiate/able etc. lives don't necessarily matter quite as much, just as you assume that 'all lives matter' refers more to humans then to dogs then to horses then to rats then to flies then to bacteria etc.
posted by YAMWAK at 5:40 AM on February 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


yamwak--thanks for taking the time--I need to work on this. I should take a look for some of the empirical data supporting the assertions.
posted by rmhsinc at 5:47 AM on February 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


Some interesting comments on this subject in The Economist--yes The Economist. Yamwak, in support of your understanding
posted by rmhsinc at 6:02 AM on February 14, 2015 [3 favorites]


I was familiar with a lot of acronyms in the post but I had to look up TERF. It stands for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist.

I'm not sure what Radical Feminist means in this context.
posted by Monochrome at 6:09 AM on February 14, 2015


I absolutely needed this today. I am struggling every day to limit myself to only mostly, not totally, falling apart in a world where I am not, as she puts it so eloquently, a prototypical woman.
posted by Annika Cicada at 6:42 AM on February 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


Monochrome: a feminist who self-identifies as rejecting moderate approaches to patriarchy.
posted by idiopath at 6:51 AM on February 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


Many of us knew something like this was happening when #blacklivesmatter was countered with #alllivesmatter on Twitter, but I haven't seen it explained so clearly before.

This happens all the time in fat acceptance, too. Someone will try to talk about how fat bodies are beautiful / acceptable / okay to love / whatever and it immediately gets extended to 'all bodies are beautiful' -- which may well be an important truth but obscures the message that actual fat people are trying to internalize.

I thought the bit about relating non-transitive nature of 'is similar to' was really, really interesting, too. It's something I kind of knew, but having it explained like that made it so clear.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:17 AM on February 14, 2015 [5 favorites]


> We tend to have this idea that categories, like "bird" or "food" (or like
> "human" or "white", which is what this is all really about) are like solid
> boxes. Entities are either in them or out of them, with a clear and unchanging
> boundary, and everything inside is an unsorted & equal jumble, and everything
> outside ditto.

We do? Really? Anyone who has that idea could have used some previous guidance from me, posted many times right here on metafilter.

one example (of many):

We make most of our categories (and genres) by focusing on the extremes of what is actually a continuum, and suppressing intermediate instances.

another:

Def. 1 is the paradigmatic perfectly clear case. As is often true of theoretical categories with real-world instances there is continuous variation between the prefectly clear case and big orchestral works that are obviously not symphonies; we keep our categories clear by suppressing consideration of intermediate instances. (Similar question: what is a species in palaeontology, where the criterion for species division between two living species--namely that they can't interbreed--is hardish to prove.)


P.s. if you ask me to think of a typical human, what invariably comes to me is the image of a handful of Homo erectus sitting around a firepit chipping flints. Maybe I'm not neurotypical.
posted by jfuller at 8:24 AM on February 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


This was fascinating and useful and I think everything she says is right.

But its one of those "dangerous ideas" that dissolves everything. "Cishet white male" is a category too.

Ronald Reagan? Brad Pitt? Michael Milken? Hell yes.

My uncle who once worked as an itinerant fruit picker? The Okies? Any of a few thousand recent anonymous soldier suicides? A homeless meth head? Well... technically.

When we talk about unearned privledges, like race or gender, it seems to me that we focus on the prototypical, and the prototypes are usually above-average, paragons in some way.

If you're in one of these unearned privledge groups but are aware that you don't remotely measure up to the prototype, this sort of talk is painful. "You're playing life on easy mode and you're still a huge loser." I'm starting to understand better how some cultural identities that explicitly reject this way of thinking (Republicans, MRA jerks, GamerGate jerks, etc.) attract membership.

Yet there are plenty of people that need to hear this, who need to understand they aren't on a level playing field. I don't know what the answer is.
posted by Western Infidels at 8:37 AM on February 14, 2015 [4 favorites]


arguing that oppression is baked into cognition is a classic conservative idea: it's just human nature.

when capital required increased demand to adequately utilize the excess industrial stock built up during WWII, this led eventually to the "liberation" of "cis women" from traditional gender segregation from independent work in the European sphere. this is probably the biggest "social justice" event of the 20th century and it had nothing to do with changing human gender categories or understanding the structure of a posteriori concepts of gender.
So! When talking to other people, in fandom and outside it, we need to be aware of category-centrality as well as membership. Especially because categories like whiteness are not boxes, but rather spectrums, with a central core of “real”, unarguable members, and an uneven periphery of conditional members, who can get kicked out by the category center as convenient, but still benefit from some or all of the privilege most of the time. Understanding this helps us understand the mechanics of derailing, and the mechanics of marginalization/exclusion done by not-central members to even-more-non-central members, as well as the mechanics that central members use against us all.
understanding the "mechanics" of internet forum arguments is about as relevant to social justice as yelling at your TV and her "philosophy" is a combination of a muddled post-positivist metaphysics (founded in American "pragmatism" whose core is a reaction against left-progressive ideologies) and academic sophistry (with associated rhetorical tics.)
posted by ennui.bz at 9:16 AM on February 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


I don't think that the argument is that oppression is human nature; it is that human nature paves the way for oppression to happen, and that having a more nuanced understanding of how our minds form prejudices and biases can help us make the world less oppressive place to live. I think that's a reasonable and humane argument to make.
posted by zchyrs at 9:54 AM on February 14, 2015 [8 favorites]


It was surprisingly difficult to power through all that jargon and keep reading for the point of the essay. The relentless use of unfamiliar acronyms and abbreviations felt like a strong group-membership signifier, and it's a group that I'm not in. Is this how non-techies feel when they listen to discussions about encryption, the NSA, net neutrality, and the like?

It was an interesting point, all the same; made me think of the shift from Linnaean taxonomy to cladism in paleontology over the last half century.
posted by Mars Saxman at 10:11 AM on February 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


Haven't read the article yet, but: just this morning I discovered that according to the Chinese Zodiac, this year is the Year of the Sheep. Or of the Goat. Or of the Ram. After a brief excursion down this particular rabbithole of happily un-"resolved" cultural-linguistic ambiguity/complexity, I feel primed for this line of thinking.
posted by progosk at 10:37 AM on February 14, 2015


yeah, categorization can be a real grass mud horse
posted by idiopath at 10:47 AM on February 14, 2015 [4 favorites]


most Americans will agree that a robin is a better example of a bird than an albatross

Huh? What's wrong with you, most Americans? Is it just that you don't know what an albatross looks like? Albatross have big wings, a long beak, they lay eggs, seem to spend all their time soaring through the air, and they embody the souls of lost sailors. They're extremely bird-like birds.

On the subject of racism, I once knew a black guy for some years before I found out he was "black". I really didn't mean to "marginalize" him from the category of black people, it just hadn't occurred to me at all that he might think himself in it.

Of course the boundaries are not clear; I find it slightly bizarre that anyone still thinks it novel to point this out. "The individual is the only reality. The further we move away from the individual toward abstract ideas about Homo Sapiens the more likely we are to fall into error." I'm sure Jung went into great detail on this in one of his other books, but I can't remember which one.
posted by sfenders at 11:58 AM on February 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


My uncle who once worked as an itinerant fruit picker? The Okies? Any of a few thousand recent anonymous soldier suicides? A homeless meth head? Well... technically.

They are all excluded from the privileged category due to class. Class is one area that USans struggle with in particular, I think because of the exclusion of Communists and Socialists - both groups based around the idea of class and class warfare, and the importance of supporting Labor. Labor in the US doesn't support Labor.

There can also be breakdowns in "white". People of only German, Scandinavian, and British ancestry will always be "white". People of Irish descent are fairly solidly "white" but they weren't a hundred years ago. People of Italian descent are "white" until you start talking about the mob or olive skin. People of Jewish descent or who are Jews as "white" until you shake the box a little, and caricatures of them are used to insult a wide variety of "white" individuals even now as a racist dogwhistle (see: caricatures of Anita Sarkeesian, who is not even Jewish but rather of Armenian descent).
posted by Deoridhe at 12:08 PM on February 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


People of only German [...] ancestry will always be "white".

Except when we were fighting wars with Germany.
posted by zompist at 1:04 PM on February 14, 2015


her "philosophy" is a combination of a muddled post-positivist metaphysics (founded in American "pragmatism" whose core is a reaction against left-progressive ideologies) and academic sophistry (with associated rhetorical tics.)

Would I be able to understand the content of this comment without reading hundreds of years of philosophy from scratch? And if so, can anybody help me understand it, whether by rewording it, recommending an article, etc? Because I see value in the linked LJ post and if that's misguided I'd like to know why.
posted by OnSecondThought at 2:23 PM on February 14, 2015


most Americans will agree that a robin is a better example of a bird than an albatross

Huh? What's wrong with you, most Americans?


For what it's worth, the article described my own mental map pretty well. Albatrosses are some of the birdest birds in Greater Birdville, sure, but when I think "bird", little inland field birds are are the sort of things I picture.

I have an easier time remembering pigeons are doves than remembering they're birds. That's weird, right?
posted by reprise the theme song and roll the credits at 2:26 PM on February 14, 2015


Little inland not-endangered not-dangerous diurnal morning-singing worm-eating treebranch-nesting field birds. They're not big birds, or seabirds, or birds of prey. They're just, y'know, birds.
posted by reprise the theme song and roll the credits at 2:35 PM on February 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


Just want to summarize to make sure I'm getting the idea correctly: categories are mentally useful, but also sometimes mentally misleading because every category of things has one specific thing that is the default representative that category. It's great to have the word "houses", but even though it may cover everything from a favela shack to a sprawling mansion, most people will picture "houses" as a bunch of average, suburban houses.
posted by the jam at 2:58 PM on February 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


There can also be breakdowns in "white". People of only German...ancestry will always be "white".

Except when they were the immigrant menace threatening to swamp the Anglo-Saxons:

"why should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our settlements, and by herding together establish their languages and manners to the exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion?

Which leads me to add one remark: That the number of purely white people in the world is proportionably very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes are generally of what we call a swarthy complexion ; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English make the principal body of white people on the face of the earth." --Ben Franklin, getting his nativist on, 1755.
posted by Pseudonymous Cognomen at 3:12 PM on February 14, 2015 [3 favorites]


Well-done and concise blog post. I would have maybe added something about how if you only know one black person/French person/gay person, there's a strong tendency to let that one example fill out your entire concept of that "category", if you're using "black/French/gay" rather than "person" as the primary category. E.g. if your one French acquaintance has OCD and you put them in the "French" category before the "person" category, you're going to think "wow, French people are super uptight".
I think this might be a natural part of the way the brain works (maybe a product of evolution, like "I ate those little purple berries and I was sick for two whole days, so fuck all purple berries!") But it's no help to us modern "civilized" people when it feeds into the kind of categorization described in this post.
posted by uosuaq at 3:37 PM on February 14, 2015


Observational aside: the author seems to fall into her own categorical trap by assuming "American" (a category that comprises 5% of global population) as a normative default; the idea of "white, middle-class, cisgender heterosexual male" as a sort of Platonic ideal of "default human" exists in all Western societies, not just the USA, and the idea of "white cisgender middle-class person" exists as a normative default in a lot of other areas (see for instance much of what passes for "feminism" in the West; the focus of much Western feminism on the specific problems of university-educated middle-class professionals is one of the things that's given rise to intersectional and trans-inclusive feminisms). There may be a US-specific focus and an intended audience of "Americans", but the assumptions underlying that are as much a category problem as the ones mentioned.
posted by Pseudonymous Cognomen at 4:42 PM on February 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


Ontology is the boringest of all disciplines.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 7:28 PM on February 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


I thought this was ornithology.
posted by landis at 10:07 PM on February 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


Observational aside: the author seems to fall into her own categorical trap

It's easy to fall into even when you're thinking about it. For example, I just noticed I left out "flying" from my description above, despite her raising it as an important point in the article.
posted by reprise the theme song and roll the credits at 2:01 AM on February 15, 2015


She has responded to that issue, FWIW:
Edting to add #2: I am not American. I am not calling Americans the default/prototype because I'm projecting, I'm doing so because they are effective and powerful imperialists who have successfully become a global default no matter how hard Europe pretends they're not. I do live in the US now. I did not when I wrote the post. (also: prototype does not mean majority & does not always correlate) - Feb 2015
posted by hawthorne at 2:28 AM on February 15, 2015


She has responded to that issue, FWIW

With hand-waving, mostly (last time I checked Europe accounted for a rather substantial part of the globe, for instance). "White cisgender male" may be "default human" in Western countries generally, but "American" isn't --and outside the USA, while "Christian" may still be a default in some Western countries, it's much less so than it is in the States (most Western Europeans are not religious; something like 40% of Britons and 35% of French are atheists, who may or may not identify as culturally Christian). Outside the Anglosphere, the response to "think of a famous person" is more likely to NOT be an American Anglophone (and even within the Anglosphere, the response is likely to be white, and male, but may not be American).
posted by Pseudonymous Cognomen at 4:21 AM on February 15, 2015


Going into this I was bewildered by the insistence on placing America at the center, but it eventually became clear that all systems of thought run out from a center, and the author knew this. If she had placed, say, China at the center, the default would be a cis male Han Chinese, and the further you fell from this default the less "Chinese" you would be. The author had to pick a point of reference and I think she chose well.

It brought into focus for me the actual reason why extending "x are y" into "all are y" is a terrible derail, by demonstrating how the generalised case re-marginalises the x that the original statement had moved to the center.

An excellent, beautifully reasoned and thought-provoking piece.
posted by Autumn Leaf at 4:45 AM on February 15, 2015


I can't find any particular centre to my notion of what a "bird" is like. Albatross, duck, robin, raven, sandpiper, turkey, great blue heron... they are all clearly and equally birds to me. An emu is certainly less ideally bird-like to my particular prejudices, but if I have some unconscious notion of an ideal bird then it must fall somewhere in-between the various species of birds with which I'm familiar. If it had any concrete form it would probably look more like a Dr. Seuss creature than any actual bird. Cartoonish, which makes it more abstract and generalized.

If there's any one concept in Western culture that stands out in depicting exactly what a "default human" looks like, it's probably not a cisgender American male exactly six feet tall with a crew cut, it's this guy. People generally shouldn't get too confused if they meet someone who doesn't look exactly like that.
posted by sfenders at 5:57 AM on February 15, 2015


It was surprisingly difficult to power through all that jargon and keep reading for the point of the essay. The relentless use of unfamiliar acronyms and abbreviations felt like a strong group-membership signifier, and it's a group that I'm not in.

Honest question: can you give some examples of what you're finding jargon-y in there? Because re-reading it, I can't see all that much that I would expect to be unfamiliar to most people. Just some of the identity markers: WOC, neurotypical, cis, cishet, and I guess able in the sense of able-bodied/not disabled. What else feels unfamiliar or jargon-y to you in the essay?
posted by vibratory manner of working at 9:02 AM on February 15, 2015


Yes, all that identity marker stuff reads like jargon, but it just keeps going: "queer WOC", "casual erasure", "active casual bigotry" - I can work out what these things mean from context, but the lack of explanation or reference makes it clear that these are everyday coinage for the intended audience (who is therefore Not Me).

What really jarred me out of the flow, though, was "(horrific example tw)", where "tw" presumably means "trigger warning". The whole idea of "trigger warnings" is groan-worthy to begin with, but this author apparently throws the phrase into her text so often that it needs not just an initialism but an elaboration as to what *kind* of trigger warning it is! But then she upped the ante with "TERF warning", whatever the hell *that* is - something trans-related? - and now I'm certain I opened the wrong door in the community center and accidentally invaded some kind of hyperspecialized support group.

I like the author's point, and the beginning of the essay is clear and nonjudgemental. I think it could reach and influence a much broader audience than what I'm guessing is a tight-knit circle of activists in the author's acquaintance if it were rewritten without the cliquey tone.
posted by Mars Saxman at 1:29 PM on February 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


sfenders: they're all birds, yes. Lakoff spends a good deal of time explaining that prototypes are not the same as graded categories. That is, it's not the case that a robin is 98.5% a bird while an emu is only 40% a bird. They're both 100% birds, but one is a better example and seems to be used as a stand-in for birds when we make deductions (e.g. "can it fly? would it fit in my oven?").

Note that some of this is based on psychological tests (done by Rosch and others), which you could try to replicate— e.g. make a list of birds and see which you list first, or ask "is this a bird" on an array of pictures and test reaction times. Or see how well the bird fits the frame "___ is technically a bird." This will sound weird with prototypical members.

Your own list, varied as it is, omits some of the outliers: ostrich, penguin, Archeopteryx, flamingo, owl. E.g. do an image search on "bird drawing" and you'll see an awful lot of songbirds.

Your mention of cartoons is perceptive; cartoonists will tend to draw more prototypical members of a category.

"Bird" may not be the best example to start with, because it's a supercategory rather than a basic term. "Cat" or "chair" or "red" might be better examples.
posted by zompist at 1:31 PM on February 15, 2015


Although "radical feminist" gets used by many people as if it means "a feminist who self-identifies as rejecting moderate approaches to patriarchy", radical feminism has a definition that's not just "really out-there feminism":
Radical feminism is a philosophy emphasizing the patriarchal roots of inequality between men and women, or, more specifically, social dominance of women by men. Radical feminism views patriarchy as dividing rights, privileges and power primarily by gender, and as a result oppressing women and privileging men.

Radical feminists tend to be more militant in their approach (radical as "getting to the root") than other feminists are. Radical feminism opposes existing political and social organization in general because it is inherently tied to patriarchy. Thus, radical feminists tend to be skeptical of political action within the current system, and instead tend to focus on culture change that undermines patriarchy and associated hierarchical structures.
posted by Lexica at 2:39 PM on February 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


Your mention of cartoons is perceptive

It comes from Scott McCloud, who pointed out that the less realistic the art style used in depicting for example a person, the more different people it might be taken to resemble. A stick figure looks like pretty much anyone with the appropriate number of arms and legs.

What I was trying to get at with the birds is that the "prototype" not only varies between individuals, it is practically never so specific as "Able neurotypical not-fat not-poor straight cis white anglophone American Christian men" in anyone. There are no doubt many animals that are indisputably birds that I would take a moment to identify as such, but my mental idea of a generic "human" includes people with blonde hair and brown, short people and tall people, fat people, poor people, trans women, murderers, et cetera. I'm sure there are some people out there, be they pygmies or investment bankers, who I'd find some slight moment of mental resistance to overcome before reason won out in convincing me of their humanity. No doubt for some a similar difficulty would be had in dealing with gay people, or albino people, or whatever category of people they're either entirely unfamiliar with or have some kind of other problem with. The idea should be to broaden people's accepted range of normal human looks and behavior, and I think that's undermined by assuming that it's so incredibly narrow to begin with.
posted by sfenders at 3:48 PM on February 15, 2015


But it is not really about who you can accept as human; it's about what your default picture of a human being is. There is the old riddle where a man is driving with his son, and they get in an accident. The father is killed instantly, but the son survives to be rushed to the hospital. When he arrives in the OR, the doctor says "I cannot operate on this man. He is my son." If you have a moment of confusion on reading/hearing that, it is not necessarily because you believe that women can't be doctors or that when presented with the idea (or actual presence) of a female doctor you would reject it. But when a vague description requires you to imagine doctor, the person you imagine is male.

Or maybe you don't. Maybe your default doctor is so perfectly generic that you don't hesitate for a second. But a lot of people do. And they tend to do it all in the same way, which is why that riddle is even a thing. This works on men and women; it works on people who describe themselves as feminists and who wholeheartedly agree that a doctor can be a woman, that there is nothing abnormal about that. Which is to say that even people who think they have a very generic default can find that their unconscious mind doesn't agree.
posted by eruonna at 4:40 PM on February 15, 2015 [11 favorites]


eruonna, that's such an excellent example of the "default person" thing, thank you!
posted by snap, crackle and pop at 4:43 PM on February 15, 2015


Well yes, when I first heard that one some decades ago, my "default" doctor was indeed a man in a white coat as seen in old movies. At the moment more than half the doctors I know don't match that description, but no matter. I'm not saying this problem doesn't exist in myself or others, just that it's nowhere near so severe as implied by the ridiculously specific picture of a "default human" given, which matches only some small fraction of people in any one medium-size American city, never mind the rest of the world. Sure, many people tend to have this sort of image of "doctor". Perhaps most people, or at least most of those over a certain age, would still hesitate to think it's a woman. Some wouldn't think it's a black man, some wouldn't think it's an athiest, et cetera. I think you'd have to work pretty hard to find someone who shares all those prejudices listed, and what's more applies them so thoroughly as to affect their perception of not only the appearance of "a doctor" or some other specialist category involving lots of historical sexist baggage, but also that of simply "a person".

Once you have the idea that "everyone" (in America) shares a single default prototypical archetype of a human being who has such attributes as skin color, sex, gender, body type, and religion, you may as well go all the way and specify his shoe size as well.
posted by sfenders at 5:54 PM on February 15, 2015


Since the link is to a blog about writing, I would further suggest that if such characters are over-represented in fiction, perhaps part of the reason is that some large fraction of writers and publishers behave as if they believe that everyone does think that way. But it doesn't mean they're right.
posted by sfenders at 6:09 PM on February 15, 2015


This seems relevant. I wanted to post it months ago, but couldn't think of a way to make it a question which would lead to a discussion worth having. Was going to put together a post about category structures to try to make it work, but here it is already. :-)
posted by johnofjack at 7:42 AM on February 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


Actually, johnofjack, your link is to someone discussing edge cases, which is a different thing to the article in the FPP here. It's interesting in its own right and intersects with some of the discussion here, but it is still something of a derail.
posted by Autumn Leaf at 8:33 AM on February 17, 2015


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