electric sheep

Everyone has that day when they’re finally told about the prejudice secretly dwelling in their hearts. Then there’s the day when they actually believe it. For me, the first came when I read Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi.

Fun reading, this book is not. Read the first and last chapters and rest assured you’ve seen everything important. Steele took what should have been a long essay and stretched it into full book size by rehashing concepts over and over. Not that I don’t value his obvious scholarship. I do.

I used to think I had my mind made up about affirmative action. Looking around for scholarships to help pay for college, I kept running into offerings which required the applicant to be Black, or Hispanic, or American Indian.  Clearly this is reverse discrimination, I thought. People can’t help being born white, so why shouldn’t they get all of the same opportunities to earn money that minorities have? If the intention is to correct the structural income differences created by generations of racism, then why not assess need based on financial status? I thought I had things all figured out.

That I felt so unambiguously right should have been a clue that I was missing something. Going into my senior year of college, I had to read Whistling Vivaldi as part of my role in helping with an orientation program. For the first time, I wrestled with evidence that truly challenged my thinking on prejudice.

Steele introduced to me the concept of “critical mass.” Within a group, if there is not a minimum number of other people who seem to share a similar identity, individuals tend to feel like an outsider. Again and again, his (and others’) research seemed to confirm that minority groups (not only defined by race) usually underperformed when they felt like they didn’t belong, and especially when the performer knew of possible stereotypes. Women taking higher math classes. Minorities sitting standardized tests. However, the presence of others who seemed to share a similar identity could reduce or eliminate this performance difference. Throwing a few extra women in a difficult math class took away the constant reminders of those stereotypes. The same thing appeared to happen for new minority university students if they could see that “people like them” belonged just as much as anyone else. To me, this finally justified affirmative action.

I like to think I started behaving differently that day, after being told. I like to think I started being more inclusive. I imagine that I started to vary my default personal pronouns. I like to hope I never contributed to anyone’s experience of isolation. That day when you’re finally told you’re riddled with prejudice is important.

But then there’s the day when you really believe.

Without Claude’s book, I might have read Philip Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep in a completely differently. As is, I read it as a startling treatise on the hegemony of stereotypes and the nigh irresistible shaping power of external opinion. I doubt Dick intended it to be so. In fact, after reading his wikipedia page, I wonder whether Dick ever had intentions about anything. If you’re not familiar with the story, this novel formed the basis for the classic movie Bladerunner. The core premise is that increasingly human models of servant androids are going rogue, to the point of killing their masters, and the responsibility for neutralizing this chameleonic threat falls to a certain task force of bounty hunters, one of their number being our anti-heroic protagonist.

I got chills the first time Rick Deckard killed an android. Gifted with incredible intelligence, super-speed, inhuman strength, this android should have had every opportunity to live on. But the second Rick saw through his disguise, as soon as the bounty hunter pulled his weapon, the android just gave up. Every scrap of fight left him. The android no longer believed he could escape. Even if he killed Rick Deckard, others would find him unprotected by anonymity. Eventually he would fall. It may be Dick wanted us to see this loss of spirit as the defining difference between man and machines which can look, talk, smell, maybe even fuck like us. We might assume that a human would always fight to survive, even when the situation looks hopeless. Man struggles to the bitter end.

That’s more superman than man. I think that people are much more similar to this android than we like to think. We succumb to our beliefs, and any force which can shape those beliefs holds power over us. Claude’s stereotype threat is a tragic symptom of an even greater force operating in our lives. It’s why confidence, especially unjustified confidence, tends to pay social dividends. It’s the reason we start looking for partners which are “good enough” to be with us. It’s the mysterious force which trades money from our wallets for Air Jordans and Coach purses. It’s how demagogues turn us against our neighbors. What we believe comes to function as the truth for us.

Then again, it could be Dick recognized this fact. J. R. Isidore is another inhabitant of Dick’s android infested dystopia. What makes Isidore unique is that he’s a “special.” He has some sort of unspecified mental handicap, or perhaps just an abnormally low IQ. Instead of receiving comfort and support, this world leaves Isidore to fend for himself. He makes a living repairing artificial animals. In a world with an irrevocably damaged ecology, it’s become vogue to own some sort of animal as a pet. Those without the financial means to buy one of the (very rare) remaining animals must keep up appearances with something fake. The title of Dick’s book references Rick Deckard’s rather pathetic electric sheep. Inevitably these fakes have to be maintenanced, which brings them to Isidore, repairman protector of the right to keep up appearances.

Isidore is apprehensive of the vidphone. He much prefers tinkering with the cybernetic animals, a complicated task for which he has a surprising affinity. But Isidore’s boss pulls perverse pleasure from pushing Isidore to answer customer calls. He taunts him into answering the vidphone with calls of “chickenhead,” a commonplace slur for specials like Isidore. When Isidore answers the phone, he stutters uncontrollably, drawing more ridicule from his boss. In fact, Isidore stutters at places throughout the entire novel, but curiously concentrated on moments when someone reminds him of his handicap.

I thought I was imagining the distinction until I happened upon a particular android’s observation. He and a group of other android fugtives decide to strategically befriend Isidore, in the hope they could use him as a distraction when the bounty hunters come calling. As the androids pretend friendship with Isidore, sharing food and casual conversation, one android notices that Isidore’s stuttering has stopped. Surrounded by those he thinks  to love him, Isidore loses the destructive “chickenhead” identity. Such a simple shift, but one with far-reaching implications.

I’m not sure what magical property stories have which makes me more confident than a confidence interval; which quality character epiphanies have that’s more compelling than the law of large numbers; how make-believe struggles sway me more than white-coated assurances. I do know that I finally understood prejudice when I read Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. My own prejudice is proven by the simple fact that there are still people in the world held down by harmful stereotypes. Until everyone is free to live and grow on an even playing field, I’m not believing hard enough.