Last month, in this column, we advanced a discussion of the hermeneutics involved in the interpretations we make daily and of our growing propensity to commit Group Attribution Error. While the mistaken preconceptions that produce that error are indeed what I believe to be the most pervasive and potentially consequential risks that we face today, I would add the following important qualification: The risk is not just that of mistakenly holding a preconception toward another person. The risk is one of unconsciously holding such preconceptions. Preconceptions in humans are unavoidable. None of us arrives here outside a context of some sort. There is no such thing as a “blank slate.” The interpretive act always establishes itself on preconceptions, presuppositions or assumptions of one sort or another.
The greater risk, I fear — even more insidious because of the quiet way in which it also creeps in upon us — is that of having stereotyped in a way that is not consistent with what rightly conceived diversity training gains for us; training that brings us to the point of appreciating that even within what might be perceived as the same culture or ethnicity, there are differences between individuals that make them exquisitely unique. No two individuals have the exact background. Not even twins (and I am one) — with all the similarities of culture, education and background — approach the world in the same way. Each has a different life history. It’s within that historicity that we advance our interpretations.
To suggest that to understand the complexities of diversity and derive its benefits, we need to focus on traditionally accepted delineations of culture and ethnic groupings, potentially taints our communities in ways that I believe we want to avoid. Gross generalizations or similarities that we impute to a group are abstractions more reflective of the cognitive limitations of our own mental powers of observation than reflective of any real or enduring states or conditions.
After ten hours of graduate-level statistics, the only principle that has stuck with me through the decades was that there “is more measurable variability within a randomly generated sample cell than that which is measurable between randomly generated sample cells.” As a fraternal twin, I may have acquired a sense of that principle sooner than most. I had blue eyes, my twin had green; I was tall, he was short; and the distinctions only grew more pronounced through the years. But in the eyes of most diversity programs we were the same — we were caucasians or as Webster defines: of or pertaining to the white race as defined by law; specified as composed of persons of European, North African or Southwest Asian ancestry. White is called out as — free from color; the color of new snow (although Eskimos are said to make more than 30 distinctions of how snow varies), not black, brown, yellow or red.
At this point, consider again the statistical axiom that there is greater variability or difference within a measurable sub-grouping than between sub-groupings – greater variability within Whites, Blacks, Latins, Asians or Natives than between any of those groups. That 36 countries make up what is known as European, 10 North African, and 2 Southwest Asian accounts for how that is true. The diversity resident within those countries was sufficiently pronounced as to be that upon which countless conflicts, including two World Wars, were launched.
Consider the sources of cultural variability that contribute to that diversity: CUSTOMS & COURTESIES – greetings, treatment of visitors, eating, gestures; PEOPLE – general attitudes, personal appearances, population (constitution), language, religion; LIFESTYLE – family, dating and marriage, diet, business, recreation, holidays; NATION – land and climate, history, economy, education, politics, and health.
This discussion is particularly relevant as we in the cybersecurity community seek to address the “talent gap” that currently assails us. Clearly as we seek to fill those ranks, there are past discriminatory acts that need to be redressed, but that remedial effort shouldn’t be confused with that of achieving diversity…the attainment of which is almost unavoidable if each individual is properly considered. Examining that talent gap and efforts to manage it will be a topic I take up next month.