Eugene Volokh has written some very good posts about the Dusty Baker controversy here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Briefly, Baker (a black manager of the Chicago Cubs) got into trouble for saying the following:
“Personally, I like to play in the heat,” he said. “It’s easier for me. It’s easier for most Latin guys and easier for most minority people.
“You don’t find too many brothers in New Hampshire and Maine and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, right? We were brought over here for the heat, right? Isn’t that history? Weren’t we brought over because we could take the heat?
“Your skin color is more conducive to the heat than it is to the light-skinned people, right? You don’t see brothers running around burnt and stuff … running around with white stuff on their ears and nose and stuff.”
Eugene (rightly, I think) says that this shouldn’t be a big deal; that if the statements are indeed false it is an honest mistake, and not the sort of generalization that should be considered rude or offensive. But, this observation of Eugene’s caught my attention:
Things are properly different, as a matter of good manners, when the allegation is tied to something that people generally see as a character defect. Lack of intelligence falls into that category (maybe it shouldn’t, but it generally does); so does uncoachability. When we suggest that people have such attributes, we are properly held to a higher standard of proof. We can see that even if we set aside race: “I’m pretty sure my acquaintance Joe Schmoe might be prone to heat exhaustion” is something that we can comfortably say on very little evidence. “I’m pretty sure my acquaintance Joe Schmoe isn’t smart” is something that we would generally pause a little longer before saying — especially if we’re saying it in public.
Moreover, when we suggest that people as a group have such attributes, those members who lack those attributes understandably bristle — the generalization is felt as more of a personal attack. Again, I think we see this even outside the context of race. Generalizations about groups (fraternity members, people who engage in certain occupations, residents of a particular area) are, especially if they’re accurate, quite acceptable if they relate to a relatively morally neutral property. But if they relate to a morally troublesome trait (stupidity, dishonesty, and so on), they cause more bristling, even if they are statistically well-supported, though not as much as when they’re made about groups that have a more self-conscious identity (such as racial, ethnic, or religious groups).
Have you noticed that it’s very common for people to make this “character defect” sort of generalization about children, and it’s considered quite acceptable? In fact, just today I noticed James Lileks wrote this:
Who believes that hypocrisy is somehow the greatest sin of all? Adolescents. Which ought to tell you something.
I hope the day will come soon when this sort of thing makes us all bristle as much as if it was said about a race.
By the way, if you haven’t read this yet, do it now!