Capitalization, Cognitive Bandwidth, and Unfair Social Judgement

i don’t like capitalizing my text. I spent a while refusing to capitalize anything, and as a result, learned more about racism, judgement and prejudice. Here’s how:

All-lowercase text reminds me of instant messenger conversations, which i find more intimate.  I like the way a wall of all-lowercase text looks. Capital letters feel fake, phony, as if The Most Honorable Author Were Attempting to Project an Air of Legitimacy, rather than letting natural authenticity shine forth.

My sister told me that it was harder to read my text written in all-lowercase. She said that capital letters helped her eyes notice the end of one sentence and the start of another. Perhaps because i spend my days programming, i’m much more used to looking for periods than most people.  Perhaps because i’m the one writing it, i know what it says. In any event, I hadn’t considered her complaint before – that reading my words was more ‘mentally taxing’ than it normally is to read words.

That made me think.

Our brains categorize things. We fit them into patterns – and our brains also use a ton of energy. When something doesn’t fit into the normal pattern, it takes additional energy for us to process our interactions with them.

If you are reading a complex paper full of spelling errors, or listening to heavily accented speech, it takes more energy than when you are reading a paper where all of the spelling is correct, or listening to speech is in your local accent.  It is for this reason – limited cognitive resources are depleted faster by things which do not match what we are used to – that I think a lot of biases are explicable in terms of limited cognitive bandwidth. We want people to fit into predefined categories because people who are different take more energy for us to interact with. A man wearing a dress can ‘blur’ the mental categories, and if we aren’t use to seeing a man in a dress, it can take more energy to process the sight.

Even homophobia fits this pattern here; the biblical proscriptions against homosexual behavior are put right into a long, weird list of Things Which Should Not Be Mixed, including such bizarre things as “different kinds of fabric.”   I see plenty of people today protesting gays while wearing cotton polyester blends. Why? Why do they follow the one rule and ignore the other? Perhaps the rule saying “men should never sleep with men” was not put in place because there’s anything intrinsically wrong with homosexuality – but because most people have limited ability to think about different things, and our ancestors were so damn poor, diversity was a luxury their society just couldn’t handle.  Maybe the people who are so strongly opposed to gay rights and letting gay people be alive in public – maybe that’s because they are cognitively weaker than those of us who accept people for who they are. I remember being afraid to be gay. I remember being uncomfortable seeing men kiss each other – to be honest, it still makes me a little uncomfortable – but only because i’m not used to seeing it and i was been told over and over as a kid that it was wrong.

We should stop seeing hatred of different people as evil, and see it as weakness.  Let us see  hatred with compassion, while still refusing to accept its expression in public.

I should add, here, that most people in the past had a far more limited ability to think about different things. Growing up in a world with TV and the internet, we can be exposed to all kinds of different people, cultures, beliefs, and appearances – and by seeing how those people interact with each other, we can learn responses that work. We can be accustomed to far more experiences than our ancestors, because we have access to far more experiences than they did.  

Just generations ago, nobody saw interracial couples in public. The first interracial couples had to fight for legal rights, and the people fighting back came up with all kinds of absurd explanations as to how this would Ruin the World.   Another finding from neuroscience is that our brains are very good at explaining and rationalizing our reactions – and these rationalizations are very often compelling, even if our reasoning is totally false.  Today, I have a family that looks like this:

Back Then: a Horrible Mixing of Things Which Should Not Mix Now: A family! Hooray!
Back Then: a Horrible Mixing of Things Which Should Not Mix
Now: A family! Hooray!

In the past, plenty of people would have had all kinds of horrible things to say about us. Nobody would have said “it’s harder for me to think about you because you blur the cognitive boundaries my mind uses to partition the world in a way my conceptualizing process can handle!”  Instead, they’d talk about god, and a mixing of types, as if we were all C++ compilers with strict typing rules.

I rarely hear this ‘limited cognitive bandwidth’ talked about in public discussions relating to poverty, drug addiction, or racism, but to me, this unstated cost is at the core of many of our problems. It’s easy for someone who has never struggled in life to find fault in many of the choices poor people make. They don’t know what it’s like to be constantly starved for mental resources. Conservatives often bemoan the lack of ‘family values’ among the poor, while forgetting that building a relationship takes energy.   If you come home from work and have been insulted and mocked by customers all day, it’s a lot harder to be kind and loving to someone in your life than if you have been treated with respect and dignity.

So next time you see someone hating people who are different, try not to hate them for their weakness; see it with compassion, without accepting it.  You can’t pour new wine into old skins. The world is moving forward; it’s a better place than it was a few hundred years ago, and it’s a more accepting place than it was just a few decades ago.  We can keep moving it forward by acknowledging that people do have limited mental resources, that being poor is a mentally taxing experience, and that people who are suffering from intense mental burdens can’t and shouldn’t be expected to shoulder that weight alone.

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