From Schrödinger to social justice: Urban Dictionary to the rescue
I never thought I would be quoting the eponymous Urban Dictionary but one of the phrases recently added draws attention to how often we make unwarranted assumptions about other people: Schrödinger’s Queer. The term describes a person (usually in the public domain, a celebrity) about whose sexual orientation nothing is known, and argues that until evidence emerges like they marry someone or appear with romantic partners in public, no assumptions can safely be made about their sexuality. Like the eponymous unstable caesium atom in Schrödinger’s original thought experiment, we cannot know whether it has decayed (killing the cat) or not until we open the box and see whether the cat is alive or dead. Until the evidence presents itself, we are left with uncomfortable uncertainty.
Most people make a whole raft of assumptions about people they have never met, creating a spurious construct of what they assume and expect the person to be like. This is dangerous because when someone violates any one of these ‘givens’, it is jarring, causing what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance”: no one like to be proven wrong. We tend to feel slighted and angry at the person who disproved our assumptions by defiantly being themselves! Yet, how can we really meet another person as they are while we are filtering all the information they are giving about themselves through the filter of our myriad preconceptions?
Assumptions that everyone in the world is heterosexual, cis-gendered and monogamous by nature threaten to erase and marginalise all the queer, trans and polyamorous people in the world. Women with careers in fields dominated by men often find others have assumed they are male. Black people with locally common names often find people assume they are White.
Such assumptions are dangerous. They reinforce expectations, stereotypes, and the jarring sensation of being proven wrong encourages prejudice against minorities. They help exclude anyone who does not fit the stereotype of a white, heterosexual, professional man from progressing in many careers. The toxic expectation that all professionals will behave like cis-gendered heterosexuals even has a name: heteroprofessionalism. We don’t expect and so won’t tolerate diversity in positions of trust who don’t behave as expected, and so marginalised groups are kept poor and in roles we respect less. In this way, our unjustified assumptions ensure our society remains unfair and inequitable. In the name of fairness, it is time we all learned to live with a little uncertainty.