Can We Do it Right?

Profiling is how the mind works:  we fit things into categories automatically and unconsciously, the more efficiently to deal with them.  And we do this even before we recognize what they are – or who.

Evolution blessed us with this capacity to help us survive.  If we had to stop and think every time we faced a danger – or saw an opportunity – we  might not have made it as a species.  Other species have the same capacity, and that helps them to contend with each other and with us.

This is the origin of prejudice, a quick and dirty way of making sense of the world.  It comes up now again as we are trying to improve airport security in the aftermath of the “underpants bomber.”  Peter Beinart, blogging on The Daily Beast, warns us against the increasing clamor to subject Muslims – or Muslim sounding – travelers to extra scrutiny:

“Religious profiling, in reality, is often racial profiling. And racial profiling is not only ugly, but counterproductive. The reasons are simple. Airport officials have finite resources. The more they concentrate those resources on a profiled subset of the population, the less scrutiny everyone else gets. And the less scrutiny everyone else gets, the greater al Qaeda’s incentive to recruit terrorists who fall into that less-scrutinized category.” (See “Profiling Will Never Work.”)

That’s a good point, but it is also true that security guards probably can’t help being influenced by their instinctive tendency to profile the danger they feel they know.  Right now we are all on guard against the threat from the Middle East.  We can’t help it.

But evolution blessed us with a second gift:  consciousness.  That allows us to reconsider our instinctive reactions, discuss them with others, and arrive at more effective and adaptive responses.  That is, we can’t erase our initial responses, but we can stop ourselves from acting on them, and we can think carefully about better ways to respond.

Moreover, the same nervous system that evolved to perceive dangers before we actually recognized them, also alerts us to other signs.  We might pick up an unusual tone of voice, a shifty manner, a stare, or even far more subtle signs that indicate that something is amiss.  Sometimes that just leaves us with an odd sensation, a “funny feeling,” but we can be trained to take such sensations more seriously and probe into their source.

The point is that there is a wealth of information that can help us to grasp what is happening in front of our eyes, even when we can’t “see” it directly.  Racial profiling is just the blunt and crude tip of the unconscious reactions we have.  We can take it at face value and risk making things more dangerous for ourselves.  Or we can be smarter about it and safer.