Thursday, March 31, 2011

All Men Are Criminals...Until Proven Otherwise

One form of bias or illogical reasoning that perpetuates a lot of gender stereotypes is what might be called the irrelevant conditional, which explains why a lot of men are treated as criminals until proven otherwise. Conditionals are essentially if-then rules specifying a relationship between an antecedent and a consequent. So, with respect to the "man as criminal" stereotype, the conditional if criminal, then male, is a pretty accurate given that 90% of criminals are indeed men. The problem is a rather illogical tendency to reverse the antecedent and consequent and accept the same evidence as “proving” the alternate rule. No matter how gender biased the prison population is, this does not support the if male, then criminal, conditional. The two are independent of one another, yet there is a tendency to reason that the former implies the latter.

This is exactly how society behaves when, for example, airlines automatically separate children travelling alone from men in an airplane. It’s true. Airline policies will generally not allow an unaccompanied minor to be seated next to a man. My brother was on a plane one time, seated in the aisle seat at the very back of the plane. A young boy of about 5 was to be seated at the window seat next to him. The plane was chockers due to a cancelled flight, and a man was assigned a seat between bro and boy. This man was immediately asked to move – without explanation – and a woman was re-seated there. Her husband was seated two seats further down the plane. The airline actually separated a married couple so that an unaccompanied boy did not have to sit next to a man. A flight attendant with an Australian airline has indeed admitted that there is a policy that a man cannot sit next to a young passenger flying alone. Now regardless of the assumptions and good intent on which this policy is, no doubt, based, it is patently absurd. An airline flight is the last place a pervert would be able to molest a child. In a plane?!?! 10,000 meters above the earth?!?! Toilets the size of matchboxes, and uniformed flight attendants endlessly circulating about the cabin?!?! So the policy is asinine on the face of it, but it does reflect the illogical reversal of the conditional if criminal, then male to if male, then criminal.

All men have been exposed to this kind of illogical reasoning from time to time, though we're not always consciously aware of it. As a man who has walked quite a few streets alone at night, I’ve observed many pedestrians travelling in the opposite direction – mostly women – actually cross the street to the other side of the road to avoid any contact with me. Makes sense given the stereotype of the criminal male. Any single man walking near a playground where children are playing runs the risk of being questioned by a passing police car. Fathers who purchase underwear for their daughters may get questioned by store security staff. So what you say? Well, not only do men comprise 90% of all prison inmates, they make up 97% of all wrongful convictions, and the more violent the crime, the higher the percentage of wrongfully convicted men. How many men are still behind bars because of wrongful convictions? We’ll never know because we only have statistics for the cases where the wrongful conviction was discovered and overturned. How many undiscovered cases are there?

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