You Felt *Sorry* for Her?

There’s a quite powerful scene in To Kill a Mockingbird where Tom Robinson, a black man on trial for raping a poor, low-status white woman, is being cross-examined by the prosecutor.  Tom admits that he was in the woman’s house, but says that he was only there to help her take care of some chores that she was having a hard time handling on her own.  Here is the dialogue:

‘You did all this chopping and work from sheer goodness, boy?’
‘Tried to help her, I says.’
Mr Gilmer smiled grimly at the jury.  ‘You’re a mighty good fellow, it seems–did all this for not one penny?’
‘Yes suh.  I felt right sorry for her, she seemed to try more’n the rest of ’em–‘
You felt sorry for her, you felt sorry for her?’ Mr Gilmer seemed ready to rise to the ceiling.
The witness realized his mistake and shifted uncomfortably in the chair.  But the damage was done.  Below us, nobody liked Tom Robinson’s answer.  Mr Gilmer paused a long time to let it sink in.

The reason why this was such a mistake on Tom’s part is that saying you feel sorry for someone means (or at least can mean) that you regard yourself as in some sense superior to that person; and in the racist society described in the book it is totally unacceptable for any black person to regard himself as in any way superior to a white person.

What’s interesting about this is that the reaction was purely to the subtext of Tom’s statement and not to the text.  The idea that a physically strong black man might be moved to help a physically weaker white woman who had more work than she could handle was presumably not objectionable in itself, or at least not seriously so; the reason it was a big deal was the implied offense against general white supremacy.  Moreover, it was clear to everyone in the room that this was what was going on. That is, everyone in the room understood that what was really being talked about and what was nominally being talked about had almost nothing to do with each other.

I’m not sure what implications this has for the project of Overcoming Bias, or what implications it has for figuring out how to combat evil ideologies (the two projects are related, but not identical, and the latter is more important).  But it is worth noting that sometimes biases are such that the best way to advance the ball is not to engage this or that specific bias or flaw in what someone says but to recognize that what they say has pretty much no relation to what is actually going on.

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  • archer

    Sometimes free association produces very useful connections, other times it is utter rubbish, so it’s up to you to see if this is of any use. Your story reminded me of my early days in investment banking 25 years ago. Women were rare in the industry, and clients weren’t used to them either. Sometimes you’d have a client who hated investment bankers to begin with (the norm with commercial banks who still had to use investment banks for capital markets transactions). They would sometimes pick on the woman by calling undue attention to her gender, often by saying how pretty she looked or how nicely she was dressed. None of the men would defend her by stopping the conversation. It was almost as if they let a predator cut the weak member out of the herd.

  • albatross

    It’s common to have political arguments where the terms thrown around don’t mean much, but there’s a lot of context required to understand what’s going on, and almost as common to have the terms mean different things to different participants, so that there’s no communications going on at all.

    I think your example is more subtle, though. Maybe a good analogy would be a discussion about evolution, where the subtext involves the notion that to express a belief in evolution means you’re not a Christian. The whole discussion might never directly bring religion into the picture, and yet that’s the backdrop. Maybe another example is the whole nature/nurture debate, with all kinds of uncomfortable social questions riding unspoken in the background. (Though maybe I just read too much Steven Pinker.)

  • michael vassar

    David: Evil ideologies are, we can agree, very bad things, but I think that your casual assertion that combatting them is more important than overcoming bias seems to me to be unfounded. I would like you to try to defend it in a post, as it seems to me to suggest that you do not yet appreciate how deeply, nearly incomprehensibly pernicious human biases are.

    At a casual analysis, it seems to me that combatting evil ideologies would prevent almost all war and some poverty, but overcoming bias generally would also do that as well as eliminating almost all or all remaining poverty, disease, environmental problems, and far more.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    At a casual analysis, it seems to me that combating evil ideologies would prevent almost all war and some poverty, but overcoming bias generally would also do that as well as eliminating almost all or all remaining poverty, disease, environmental problems, and far more.

    But then there’s the question of which would be easier to accomplish… and which would offer the most intermediate progress along the way. I could be convinced that combating evil ideologies is an easier way to do good in the world, compared to overcoming bias…

  • Douglas Knight

    the most intermediate progress along the way

    That’s obviously overcoming bias. Ideology is large scale. Overcoming bias is useful for the individual.