What People Get Wrong About the NBA and Corona Del Mar High School

Alternative title: Why We Stereotype. Subtitle: Because our pea brains can’t handle complexity.

A sports-minded friend of mine likes soccer; Washington State Cougar football; and this time of year; the Stanley Cup playoffs. But don’t try talking professional basketball with him. He despises The Association because he decided a long time ago that the inmates are running the asylum.

College educated, and a successful professional, he’s like a lot of people who have negative preconceived notions about the league’s players. That because the minority of knuckleheads dominate the news. In fact, there’s greatness in the league, Exhibit A is Kevin Durant’s Most Valuable Player Award speech that you can watch here. Here’s a two-part challenge. Watch the first 4 minutes and then skip to the 22:50 mark and watch the last few. Try not to cry and try not to generalize about NBA players being brash, arrogant, everything that’s supposedly wrong with contemporary culture.

A Los Angeles Times story is titled “‘Prom draft’ reflects Newport Beach Culture, ex-official says“. Here’s the sordid heart of the article:

In 2009, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the school, alleging that the campus fostered a sexist and homophobic atmosphere. The civil rights suit stemmed from an incident in which three male athletes at the school posted a video on Facebook in which they allegedly used homophobic slurs, “outed” a student and threatened to rape and kill a female student.

Nearly a dozen students were expelled this year after it was discovered that a tutor who worked with some of the students accessed school computers and changed their grades.

Newport-Mesa Unified School District officials declined to comment on the prom controversy but in an email to parents, Corona del Mar High Principal Kathy Scott said she’d heard about an ongoing “prom draft” and that it appeared there was a similar draft last year.

“I need your help. I urge you to talk with your student(s) and discuss the seriousness of this type of activity,” Scott wrote. “I do not believe this is intended to be harmful, but this is not behavior that is consistent with our school’s outstanding reputation.”

Jane Garland, head of discipline for Newport Mesa Unified School District until she resigned this year, said some students there live up to stereotypes tied to Newport Beach. “There’s definitely issues at that school with certain students feeling entitled,” Garland told The Times. “The culture in Newport Beach is ridiculous and CDM personifies it.”

Garland should have stopped after saying some students feel entitled. Why? Because some CDM students may not be super wealthy and some who are may actually be mindful of their privilege. When addressing the school’s larger context, she could have said, “Newport Beach’s culture can be ridiculous as illustrated at times by some students at CDM.”

Based on his acceptance speech, Kevin Durant may be a better human being than he is a basketball player. Part of his likability is he doesn’t seek attention for his on or off-court accomplishments. ESPN is much quicker to detail the legal failures of the league’s knuckleheads than it is to describe players’ community service. Similarly, the LA Times is much quicker to detail the moral failings of some Southern California high schoolers than it is to tell the story of appreciative, selfless, ethical young people.

If it bleeds it leads. The end result? We succumb to the media’s knucklehead bias, a phenomenon that hardens our negative preconceived thoughts about people seemingly different than us.

I’ve never been on CDM’s campus, but here’s what I know to be true about it. Its students reflect the good and the bad of their parents. If Garland is right and Newport Beach’s culture can be ridiculous, then no one should be surprised by the aforementioned crises.

For better or worse, young people follow the lead of their parents. Kevin Durant is worthy of admiration because his mother has been for thirty years. Some CDM parents deserve scorn for a litany of parenting failures. Inevitably though, other CDM parents have more in common with Wanda Pratt, Kevin Durant’s mother, pictured below.

We struggle with nuance, subtleties, and ambiguity. In my alternative version of A Few Good Men, Jack Nicholson shouts at all of us, “You can’t handle complexity!”


The Most Valuable Person with the leagues best player for 2013-2014


Stereotyping Occupy Wall Streeters

A conservative Republican friend who I refer to affectionately as a “right wing nutter” is increasingly becoming a conservative Independent. He rails about many of the same things the OWSers (Occupy Wall Streeters) do including the negative influence of lobbyists and the unfair advantage gigantic corporations have over small businesses. Even though his fixes would no doubt differ from theirs, the Nutter and the OWSers diagnosis of our economic problems would overlap a lot.

Add into the mix, a “talking to” he gave his teenage son recently. Synopsis—being a man entails living passionately and standing up for and fighting for things that are important to you.

Connecting those dots, I asked him what he thought of the Wall Street protests.

Knee-jerk derision.

Why? My guess is anti-hippie bias. Can’t get past some of the protesters’ “out there” outward appearance and “in your face” style which he probably associates with liberal symbols from the counter culture movement in the 1960’s. Can’t quite get to the content of their character.

Many jump to negative conclusions about others based upon superficial things like clothing, tatts, piercings, hair coloring, mohawks, purple Converse hightops.

Young 1950’s and 1960’s Civil Rights activists were shrewd to wear their “Sunday best”. Maybe 2011 Occupy Wall Street activists don’t want the support of independents like my friend enough to change their individual, idiosyncratic personal style.

Here’s a 6+ minute film that provides an on-the-ground feel of things. And some stills.

Look pretty Main Street to me

Percussion and face painting, oh my!

Shouldn't there be a law about the mixing of tye-dye, bandanas, and the flag?

Occupy Wall Street protesters wake up and start their day in their encampment in Zucotti Park as people walk to work through the park Tuesday morning.

For the love of God, they're sleeping under tarps.

Mental File Folders

Social psychologists suggest our brains are filled with mental file folders of sort that enable us to take short cuts when bumping into or first interacting with people. Labels such as male, female, rich, poor, overweight, African-American, professor, Wall Street banker, southerner, foreigner, libertarian, conservative republican, liberal democrat, elderly, homeless, aspergers, gay, lesbian, environmentalist, evangelical Christian. We also have thinner files that might be (awkwardly) labeled, “male, conservative republican, evangelical Christian”.

Without our mental file folders, we’d have to make sense of each new person from scratch; consequently, we’d be too overwhelmed to function normally.

The question though is how thick are our respective folders? In our increasingly diverse world, we can get into serious trouble when our folders are so thin that we succumb to inaccurate stereotypes. Everyone has preconceived notions about other groups of people. The best antidote for negative preconceived notions is getting to know a wider range of diverse individuals through direct daily experience. Only then can you get a feel for a key cross-cultural insight or sensibility, that the individual differences within each file folder are typically greater than between them.

Our challenge as multicultural people is to do two things simultaneously, to recognize that there are group patterns, themes, and differences, and to recognize that the individual differences within each group are usually greater than the differences between groups. There’s lots of evidence that not everyone is up to this relatively sophisticated, multitasking, social psychological balancing act.

Fast forward to Thursday night’s training ride with about thirty other cyclists. Early on, heading out-of-town, I was spinning casually in the back (like Lance Armstrong) when a new rider introduced himself. At 20mph we talked for the next ten minutes. A military officer with about 20 years experience. Our worldviews couldn’t have been more different. We discussed drones in Afghanistan, the McChrystal firing, and his work more generally.

I’m about as dovish as they come and he was all hawk. I was unpleasantly surprised by his “I sleep well at night” lack of introspection. Cue the “military personnel” folder. Fortunately in that folder are a few “pieces of paper” representing the marines I met while teaching in Ethiopia. They were based at the US embassy and would travel to our school to hoop it up with us once or twice a week. We became friends. They invited a few of us to the embassy in the middle of the night to watch the World Series, and without knowing it, they helped me rethink my preconceived notions of military personnel.

So I’m adding my new cycling acquaintance to my “military personnel” folder, but not overgeneralizing about all military personnel based upon my admittedly brief interaction with him.