“The Uncle Tom Effect”
"When dealing with high dimensional data, it is often useful to reduce the dimensionality by projecting the data to a lower dimensional subspace which captures the 'essence' of the data. This is called dimensionality reduction."
-Kevin Murphy, Machine Learning: A Probabilistic Approach
It had been an especially mild winter in New England. Boston usually begins to snow around the holiday season and continues to do so until the city thaws in April. So when the weather was spring-like on the afternoon of January 1, 1863, the attendees of the New Year’s Day gala had cause to celebrate.
The gala was being held by two Boston elites, the poet Henry Longfellow and the politician Josiah Quincy, Jr. The audience was, as one reporter put it, “as elegant and distinguished as Boston could supply.” All told, three thousand people packed into the Boston Music Hall, filling the floor and the balcony seating. The event began with a poem from Ralph Waldo Emerson—a poem which we now know as the Boston Hymn—followed by an orchestra and chorus. They played Mendelssohn’s Hymn of Praise and a concerto of Beethoven. Seeing their party was going well, Longfellow exchanged a sidelong low-five with Quincy, Jr., and shot a thumbs-up in the direction of Emerson.
At intermission, a gentleman walked on stage. A hush swept immediately over the audience. There was a sense that something momentous was about to happen. Not a person spoke, all attention directed toward the stage. “The telegraph has just brought the news from Washington,” the gentleman’s voice rang out, “that the President has signed—“at this the crowd erupted, overcoming the rest of the announcement. This was the moment they had gathered for. The news had just arrived in Boston about the Emancipation Proclamation.
President Lincoln had freed the slaves.
Abraham Lincoln had promised emancipation shortly after the Union victory at the Battle of Antietam in late September 1862. Whether Lincoln would follow through and to what extent the proclamation would go was the topic of practically every conversation in the months following, especially in Boston, one of the most abolitionist cities. So when it was announced at the Boston Music Hall that day that “the Proclamation is said to be all that was expected or desired,” you can imagine the jubilation of the crowd. “A storm of enthusiasm followed," wrote one reporter, "such as was never before seen from such an audience in that place. Shouts arose, hats and handkerchiefs were waved, men and women sprang to their feet to give more energetic utterance to their joy.” In the midst of the excitement, someone called for three cheers to honor Lincoln. The crowd cheered. Three more cheers were called for and given. Another three. Given, again. Also acknowledged with three cheers was William Lloyd Garrison, the prominent Boston abolitionist. Then the crowd did something surprising. They began chanting another name. They were celebrating the person who, after Lincoln and Garrison, was considered by many to have had the greatest influence on freeing the slaves. She was in the audience that day, seated modestly in back of the balcony. The crowd was cheering for Harriett Beecher Stowe.
All three thousand people were on their feet making noise when Stowe started to realize that her name was being called. At only five feet tall, she could barely see past those surrounding her. She had been caught up in the excitement herself, clapping her hands and cheering, engaging with the rambunctious crowd around her to the point of her bonnet falling to the floor and her shawl being half-pulled off her shoulders. As people called her name, a circle started to open up around her. People saluted with smiles and bows, pointing toward the balcony railing. She hesitated, then went to the rail and peered down. The throng below looked up at her, shouting and waving. She could only bring herself to respond with a bow and to wipe a tear on her cheek with her handkerchief.
Many people believed that Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written by Stowe and published first in 1851, had been an integral part of the emancipation of the slaves, acting as a thumb on the scale of public opinion. Lincoln, when he met Stowe in the midst of the Civil War, is reported to have greeted her brightly, asking, “Is this the little woman who made this great war?” Frederick Douglass said of Stowe’s book, "The touching, but too truthful tale of Uncle Tom’s Cabin has rekindled the slumbering embers of anti-slavery zeal into active flame. Its recitals have baptized with holy fire the myriads who before cared nothing for the bleeding slave.” Booker T. Washington said, "The value of UTC to the cause of Abolition can never be justly estimated... [it] so stirred the hearts of the northern people that a large part of them were ready either to vote or, in the last extremity, to fight for the suppression of slavery.” It was Lincoln himself who had said years before, “Our government rests in public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion can change the government.” No book had ever done more to change public opinion of the American people than Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and it was Harriett Beecher Stowe who wielded the influence.
It’s difficult to overestimate just how popular Uncle Tom’s Cabin was in its day. “Within a year of its publication,” writes one historian, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin had sold some 310,000 copies in America, about three times the number of either of the two previous record-setting American novels, George Leppard’s The Quaker City (1845) and Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World (1851). Its sale in England was three times higher yet. One million copies of Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold in the United Kingdom during the first year; world-wide, the number was over two million. In that year, translated editions appeared in French, German, Spanish, Italian, Danish, Swedish, Flemish, Polish, and Magyar, soon to be joined by versions in Portuguese, Welsh, Russian, Arabic, and other languages.” Scenes from the book were depicted on just about every medium imaginable, from engravings and paintings to board games and jigsaw puzzles to “candlesticks, snuffboxes, spoons, earthenware plates, biscuit tins, mantelpiece screens, handkerchiefs, German needlework wall hangings, Limoges spill vases, and Staffordshire items that included mugs, pitchers, jars, and figurine sets.”
Even more popular than the book were the many adaptations to theatre. These plays—showing everywhere from New England to New York to Europe—reached a wider, working-class audience which wouldn’t otherwise have read the novel. It soon became the most popular play ever written by an American. Uncle Tom was a sensation.
In 1854, three years after Uncle Tom first appeared, a runaway slaved named Anthony Burns was captured in Boston. In accordance with the Fugitive Slave Law, he was to be returned to his master down south. When word got around, people were outraged. Fifty-thousand came out to protest his arrest. Burns had to be escorted by federal troops to get him to the port, so he could get on a ship to be transported south. People yelled, “Kidnapper! Slave Catcher! Shame! Shame!” as they proceeded through the streets of Boston. “As far as the Northern States are concerned,” wrote one commentator at the time, “‘Uncle Tom’ has repealed the Fugitive Slave Law.”
When the Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850, there were, of course, many who opposed it. But there certainly weren’t fifty-thousand people lining up to protest it, like there would be four years later. One thing that the Fugitive Slave Law changed was that it made the north complicit in the institution of slavery. Their role was no longer passive, and to many that was an unsavory prospect. It made them face the reality of it. But that’s not the whole story about what changed during the four years between Burns’ arrest and the inception of the law. Something had changed in the way northerns thought about slavery and, more importantly, about the slaves themselves. And whatever that something was, it was influenced by Harriett Beecher Stowe’s book.
The change in public opinion on slavery is one of the most important events in the history of factions in America. It represented a dramatic shift in the way people from one faction thought about people in another. At its core, it was a shift from seeing slaves as less than human to recognizing their humanity. This shift is an example of what I’ll call "the Uncle Tom Effect."
I don’t think that any of us would be surprised that a powerful book made a difference in how northerners thought about the plight of slaves. What is less obvious is how it happened. For instance, is it the case that Uncle Tom caused northerners to discover that slavery was bad and that perhaps slaves did not enjoy being treated as property? That explanation doesn’t seem right. What happened was more subtle. However it came about, the Uncle Tom Effect expanded northerners conception of the humanity of slaves. This is an important mechanism for understanding how we think about other factions. And in order to get a sense of how it works, let’s start with a lower-stakes example.
In April 2017, the global beverage corporation Heineken released a commercial as part of their “Worlds Apart” advertising campaign. The commercial opens with a bald, white British man who says, "I would describe my political views as the new right." He's wearing a suit with a purple tie and a white shirt. You can see his watch underneath the cuff of his shirt. He gestures when he says “new right,” moving his hands from center to right. Then it shows an ethnically ambiguous woman with dark skin. She has curly hair, cropped up. She's wearing large hoop earrings, a choker, and about eight- or nine-dozen colorful bracelets on her left wrist. She says, “I would say that I am left.” She gestures to the left when she says it. We see the text: “Two strangers. Divided by their beliefs.”
The scene cuts to those two people, the bald “new-right” man and the bracelet-clad “left” woman walking into a large warehouse. They enter from opposing doors. They stand there briefly and look at each other from across the room. Then it cuts back to a video clip of the man. He says, “Feminism today is man hating.” The camera cuts back to them making eye contact. We hear her say, “I would describe myself as a feminist 100%.”
They’re guided along a lane painted on the floor, where they meet in the middle of the room and follow another marked path together. We see the words: “Each knows nothing about the other. Or what this experiment involves.”
Now another pair is introduced in a new scene. We see two more people—two white men—enter the warehouse together. It’s the same set up as the feminist and the anti-feminist. The first man looks at the camera earnestly and says, "I don't believe that climate change exists." The second man says, "We are not taking enough action on climate change." He emphasizes enough. We see them size each other up in the warehouse. It cuts back to the interview of the anti-environmentalist, and he says, "I think it's about time that these people got off their high horses and start looking for credible problems that actually exist.”
A third couple enters. The woman says, "It's absolutely critical that trans people have a voice." She is attractive and white. She faces off with another white, bald man. We hear an audio clip of him saying, “That's not right. You can’t—you know, you're a man be a man or you're a female be a female.”
It goes back to a clip of the anti-feminist again: "Women need to remember that we need you to have our children.” Then the feminist, "Could I be friends with someone that says that a woman's place is in the home?" She makes a sour face. "Ehm..."
Heineken presents us with a question: "Is there more that unites than divides us?”
Now the fun begins. Each couple is tasked with building two bar stools, one is yellow and square, the other is blue and round. They begin building. At first they aren't interacting much except what is necessary to construct their stools. When the stools are finished they set them at the marked area next to a dilapidated table.
They read a prompt off a piece of paper: "Describe what it is like to be you in five adjectives.” There’s an onslaught.
The transphobic man starts, “Okay… Frustrating." He says it in a British way, collapsing ‘strate’ into a single, emphasized syllable.
The feminist: "Dedicated."
The anti-environmentalist: “Opinionated."
The transgender woman: "Lucky."
The anti-feminist: "Ambitious."
The anti-environmentalist again: "Offensive."
The transphobic man ponders for a moment, lowers his eyes, then brings them up and states, “Solemn.” He says, “I have ups and downs."
The feminist: “Strong.”
The transgender woman: "I want to say attacked, misunderstood."
The transphobic man looks at her and nods.
The next question prompts, “Name three things you and I have in common."
"We're both male, we're both confident, and we're both loudly spoken," says the anti-environmentalist.
The transgender woman says, "We know each other better than people who've known each other for 10 minutes should.”
The anti-feminist says to the feminist, "You seem quite ambitious and positive and you've got this really, um, you've got a glow. Do you know what I'm saying? Your aura is pretty cool.”
The transgender woman says, "I'm sensing, are you former military or something?"
The transphobic man responds, "People have said that but there is no history. Are you, then?"
“Ex,” she says.
"Ex military?" he asks. "If you're ex-military, I'm very proud of you already.”
The anti-feminist says, "I grew up in a bit of a rough state. I've experienced homelessness, I know what it is like to have absolutely nothing." He continues, "So yeah, I'm definitely most grateful just, just for life.”
The anti-environmentalist says, "We've only just met, but I think you're the sort of person that would listen to me and we'd have a discussion rather than argue." The other guy says, "Yeah, you're good to hang out with, man.”
Now there’s more furniture to be erected. Each couple goes around the room to collect pieces to fix up the table. They set the pieces in place and the dilapidated table becomes a bar counter. They're more interactive and communicative this time around. Then they go over to a globe on the other side of the room. They open it and there are two cold, green bottles of Heineken beer inside. It's an allusion to their campaign slogan: “Open your world.” They receive instructions: “Take a bottle and place it on its corresponding markings on the bar.” Each couple sits at the bar together.
“Attention,” a voice says over the loudspeaker. “Please stand to watch a short film.”
Each couple then sees clips selected from their interview video. First the feminist duo. The bald man in a suit says, "Feminism today is definitely an excuse for misandry, man-hating.” The two of them watching the video, both with an uncomfortable half-smile on their face. Then the climate change guys. "If somebody said to me that climate change is destroying the world then I'd say that is total piffle." The activist turns and gives a look to the other man. Then the transgender couple. The man says, "So transgender, it is very odd. We're not set up to understand or see things like that." He's standing uncomfortably. Arms crossed, shifting from side to side. An embarrassed scowl on his face. She is standing tall, but tentatively, touching her hands in front of her body.
Then we see the other sides’ videos.
"I am a daughter, a wife. I am transgender." The transphobic man crosses his arms and frowns, watching the video, not her.
"I feel like the battle for feminism definitely isn't done. The fight is never going to be over if I am honest with you.” Both the feminist and the anti-feminist look tense now. The man looks over at the woman then averts his eyes.
The voice comes back on the loudspeaker: "You now have a choice. You may go or you can stay and discuss your differences over a beer.”
We see the transgender woman and the transphobic man standing there. The transgender woman walks over to the bar stool, accepting the opportunity for discussion over a beer. But the transphobic man walks off. Her mouth gapes and her eyebrows go up.
A moment elapses, then the man comes back on screen and says, "I'm only joking.” They both chuckle, and she says, "You had me for a second there." The environmentalist counterparts each state their intention to have a beer. The feminist and the antifeminist agree to the same thing. Each couple raises their beers and says, “Cheers.”
The environmentalist says to his counterpart, "At the end of the day mate, I've enjoyed working with you." We see a line from later in their discussion, "And you know even if you wanted to convince people about your point the productive thing to do would be to sit down and have a beer." The other man agrees emphatically, "Engage! Just engage!” We see the transphobic man explain, "I've been brought up in a way where everything is black and white, but life isn't black and white." The transgender woman says, "Yeah, I'm just me." The man nods understandingly and affirms her statement. The antifeminist raises his glass, "Smash the patriarchy." They toast. The transphobic man and the transgender woman exchange numbers, promise to keep in touch, and then fire off a couple more quips.
The Heineken logo appears. Open your mind becomes Open your world.
Henri Tajfel was born June 22, 1919 in Włocławek, Poland. He was the eldest son of his father Icek Henyne Tajfel, a Jewish businessman, and his mother, Ruchla Tajfel. He had one younger brother and a tightly knit network of extended family. Poland had recently gained independence as a sovereign nation in 1918 after decades of partitioning by the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Germans, and various Russian empires. Poland’s national politics quickly descended into fascism. Poland at the time had a sizable population of ethnic minorities, including three million Jews. They were not treated well. As the Great Depression grew worse throughout the early 1930s, the prevalence of antisemitism rose. So when Henri Tajfel was a young man, looking to get an education, he found that the universities in Poland weren’t available to people like him. He left for France to complete his secondary education and went on to study chemistry at Toulouse. When the war began in 1939, though he was only two years into his degree, Tajfel immediately joined the French army. He was captured by the Germans within his first year of service.
The Germans sent him to a concentration camp. The story goes that when the German guard asked him about his nationality and his race, Tajfel couldn’t bare to disavow his identity. He admitted to the German guard that he was Jewish. (Though, from a glance at his portrait, it’s difficult to imagine that he would have been successful should he have attempted any subterfuge.) He did, however, tell the guard that he was a French Jew, rather than a Polish Jew, figuring that such a distinction might benefit him. In fact, it most likely spared his life. Tajfel remained a prisoner in the concentration camp for five years. He left no account of his experience there.
When the war had ended in May 1945 he arrived back in France at the Gare d'Orsay in Paris with the other POWs. Tajfel had survived the concentration camp. But he soon found out that he was the only one. Everyone he knew before 1939 was dead. His parents, his brother, his family and friends had all been exterminated by the Nazis.
Tajfel went to work in France and then in Belgium. He helped international relief agencies provide aid to children orphaned during the war. He could relate to what they were going through. He even went back to West Germany to help with relief efforts there. It was during this period as a social worker that Tajfel developed an interest in psychology.
In 1946 Tajfel went back to school to study psychology at the University of Paris, and then at Université Libre de Bruxelles. He finished his undergraduate degree when he was in his late twenties. While completing his studies he married Anne Sophie Eber, a British citizen, in October 1948. They moved to England. He worked there as a research assistant in psychology labs for almost a decade. In 1957, Tajfel applied for a mature student scholarship from Ministry of Education to attend Birkbeck College in London. He won the scholarship. The reviewers of his scholarship application had been particularly impressed with his essay. He titled it, simply, “Prejudice.”
"I still think today,” says Tajfel, “that the interviewers must have decided that I was exceptionally well-qualified to know what I was talking about.”
Tajfel's is the kind of mind that one suspects all really great academics ought to have. He was a social psychologist. Eminent in his field. He taught at Oxford, Harvard, and Stanford and was the head of the department at Bristol for over a decade. He was a student of the history of cinema and loved modern art. His favorite painter was Kandinsky, and his favorite composer Bartók. He was a radical leftist. His colleague Jerome Bruner describes him as “a man of huge hospitality in the broadest sense. He listens, reacts, brings you another drink, argues you down and sets you back up. He sets his guests at each other when he fears pseudo-agreement, thunders at them when he thinks their differences finical.” Tajfel was, according to Bruner, “the canonical European, not only linguistically equipped with several languages deployed with breathtaking speed and fluency, but with a deep sense of European culture.”
Tajfel pioneered the study of what psychologists call intergroup relations. The core idea of Tajfel’s work is that there are, broadly speaking, two different strategies you can use to think about another person. You can think about them as an individual, in which case you take into account everything you know about them personally. Tajfel calls this the interpersonal strategy. The relationship between the two of you is based on who you are as individuals. The other strategy is that you can think about them as a member of a group, in which case you take into account everything you know about the group generally. He calls this the intergroup strategy. In this case, your relationship is defined by the groups with which you side, regardless of what you might have in common as individuals.
If Tajfel were to watch the Heineken commercial, he would analyze it in these terms. At the beginning of the commercial the pairs are thinking about one another with the intergroup strategy. The anti-feminist man, for example, does not know anything about the feminist as an individual. Only that he is against feminism and disagrees generally with those who support it. By the end of the commercial, they’re using the interpersonal strategy. Each one has a much more nuanced idea of who the other person is, beyond a simplistic category label. This is a textbook example of Tajfel’s intergroup psychology.
Let me give you another.
The 2006 championship game of the World Cup soccer tournament featured France versus Italy. A classic matchup. The game’s drama began early. In the fifth minute, the referee awarded France a penalty kick for the takedown of French striker Thierry Henry by Italian defender Marco Materazzi. The result was a face-off between Italian goalkeeper Gigi Buffon, regarded as one of the greatest ever goalkeepers, and French midfielder Zinedine Zidane, one of the greatest ever attacking players. Zidane made good on the attempt. France up, 1-0. Within fifteen minutes, the Italians equalized on a header by Materazzi serviced by an Andrea Pirlo corner kick. Tied, 1-1. The game was tense, but nothing out of the ordinary for a high-stakes championship. The score remained tied until the end of 90 minutes of regulation, sending the match into overtime.
The big moment came in the 110th minute of the game. The precise details of this encounter are a matter of soccer legend, but I’ll relate what happened as best I can. Zidane taunted Materazzi, "If you want my jersey, I'll give it to you at the end of the match.” This was Zidane’s final game as a professional soccer player. He was going to go into the history books as a legend of French soccer. Accordingly, he figured Materazzi might appreciate a souvenir in much same way that a twelve year old fan in the stands appreciate one as well. Materazzi’s recalls the event years later, "You see on the images that he's talking to me. I asked him two times to repeat himself to be sure that I understood. The third time I responded because I understood that he was making fun of me.” Materazzi decided that the jab was unfair. After all, they were both goal scorers in the hotly contested match at hand. What exactly was said next nobody knows for sure save for Materazzi and Zidane. Supposedly, Materazzi made a declaration concerning Zidane’s family. “Your sister is a terrorist,” is what lip-readers deduced afterward from the video. Whatever the content of the message, it inspired Zidane to trot a few yards past Materazzi, about face, rear back, and bash his forehead enthusiastically into Materazzi’s sternum, felling the Italian.
Not only does he head butt the guy, but he does it in front of seven hundred million viewers during overtime in one of the biggest—not to mention the last—games of his career. The baseball equivalent would be if Derek Jeter, in the ninth inning in game seven of the World Series, were to take a break from base running, sneak up behind the pitcher, and give him a good old fashion pantsing for the viewing pleasure of God and everyone, all immediately before announcing his retirement. Zidane was sent off with a red card, and Italy went on to win the game, along with the World Cup, in a penalty shootout.
Before Tajfel, psychologists who were interested in conflict focused on the interpersonal aspects of relationships. They thought that conflict worked like what happened between Zidane and Materazzi. It essentially comes down to one person not liking another person. Zidane held something against Materazzi as an individual. He was using the interpersonal strategy. The result of that strategy? A head butt so robustly and tremendously executed that Materazzis going several generations back felt an abrupt pang in their chest while conducting their affairs from beyond the grave.
The profound insight of Tajfel’s work is that conflict, upon closer inspection, rarely relies on the interpersonal strategy. The interpersonal strategy doesn’t explain, for instance, the relationship between a Nazi solider and a Jew in a concentration camp. It isn’t as if the Nazi is torturing the Jew because he has something against that specific Jew. No, it’s because he has something against Jews in general. ”Tajfel cannot,” in Bruner’s words, “accept the view that prejudice is an expression only of individual malaise or maladjustment or even of straightforward inter-individual conflict. Its existence also expressed certain structural properties of the broader society as well, these serving to create the categories in terms of which people sort out and evaluate the society immediately around them.” Conflict more often than not relies on people’s tacit assent to use the intergroup strategy.
We are so taken with instances like the one between Zidane and Materazzi that we don’t see the bigger picture. The entire premise of a soccer match is conflict. But the behavior of the conflict isn’t explained by interpersonal factors. The only thing that matters is the group. Tajfel was the one who stepped back and, in a sense, looked at the game as a whole. For instance, a professional soccer player has two allegiances: one country, and the other to club. Zidane, for example, played for France in the World Cup. However, he played a part of his club career at the Italian team Juventus. Buffon was a Juventus legend. That means that in one context, where what matters is nationality, he plays against the Italian goalkeeper Buffon. But in another context, when club matters, they are on the same side. That’s conflict based on intergroup factors.
The question of how we think about one another was, of course, a question of profound importance to Tajfel. It had real, tangible consequences for him. He lost his father and his mother and his brother and everyone he knew because of the way one group of people thought about another. When we hear about an atrocity, such as the Holocaust, our reaction is to consider things from the perspective of the person who went through such an experience. We have books by Primo Levi and Anne Frank and Victor Frankl to try and give us a semblance of an insight into what that must have been like. The same is true of slavery, with accounts like those of Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. We are fascinated and moved—as we should be—by the experience of the oppressed. They are stories of tremendous courage that human beings are capable of in the face of adversity. But we rarely stop to ask the opposite question. What does it take, psychologically, for a human being to be capable of enslaving another human being? How can one person put another through something like a concentration camp? That is the question that Tajfel asked.
"It can be assumed,” writes Tajfel, “that the more intense is an intergroup conflict, the more likely it is that the individuals who are members of the opposing groups will behave toward each other as a function of their respective memberships, rather than in terms of their individual characteristics or interindividual characteristics."
A natural question that follows is, “Why use the intergroup strategy at all?” It seems like it would be strictly better to take into account a person’s individuality when you’re thinking about them. Why forfeit all of that important nuance? The problem with the interpersonal strategy is scalability. The author Annie Dillard writes in For the Time Being, "There are 1,198,500,000 people alive now in China. To get a feel for what this means, simply take yourself—in all your singularity importance, complexity, and love—and multiply by 1,198,500,00. See? Nothing to it." The problem with individuals is that they’re complex.
What the intergroup strategy lacks in nuance, it makes up in efficiency. You can use it to think about a whole nation of people at a time. It’s quick and dirty. And for our relationship with most of the people on earth it does the job. It wouldn’t make sense to apply the full interpersonal strategy to every person you interact with because it would be too costly. You need the nuance that the interpersonal strategy offers in your closer relationships—friends, family members, coworkers. But the barista at the cafe? You don’t need to know her life story to conduct a successful transaction.
It follows that there is nothing inherently good or bad in the interpersonal and intergroup strategies themselves. There is no moral valence in conceiving of someone in one way or another. What matters is the consequence of your conception. And the empirical fact is that in the cases of slavery, concentration camps, and the prejudiced videos of the Heineken commercial are founded on the intergroup strategy. The Uncle Tom Effect, then, consists in expanding one’s conception of a person in another faction from the intergroup strategy to the interpersonal strategy.
But this is trickier done than said. The important question is how.
A statistician’s job is to make sense of data. The most natural way to make sense of data is to look at a plot or a graph. This is the way we’re taught in elementary school, when we learn about the X and Y axes. We understand concepts by visualizing them. The problem for statisticians then is that most interesting data are really high dimensional. Not only do you need an X and Y axis, but also a Z and an M and an N and beyond—more dimensions than the limits of our three-dimensional experience of space affords us. Complex, high-dimensional data cannot be visualized. Statisticians need a way to summarize high dimensional data in a lower dimensionality, bringing it back down to something you can visualize with just X and Y. This is a process statisticians call dimensionality reduction.
The goal of dimensionality reduction is to capture the essence of complex data in a simplified representation. This is the same problem we face when trying to understand other humans. Humans are nothing if not complex. They are, in statistical parlance, extremely high dimensional. In order to understand another human, you have to simplify them down to a dimensionality that you can more easily handle. Our strategies for understanding other humans, in this sense, are strategies for dimensionality reduction.
Tajfel’s intergroup strategy simplifies a person all the way down to a single dimension—their group affiliation. That’s why it’s so efficient. Because you don’t have to worry about any of the other dimensions. You only have to know one thing about them. It doesn’t matter where they were born or what they hope achieve in life or whether their relationship with their father is strained. It only matters that they are a feminist, or play for the Italian national team, or are Jewish. It takes all the untidiness of an actual, individual human and bundles it up in a neat, easily encapsulated package.
The logical corollary of intergroup-strategy-as-single-dimension is that it can be extended, dimension by dimension. Someone can be both Jewish and Republican, Italian and feminist. This adds another layer of nuance. The intergroup and interpersonal, then, are not two isolated, unconnected strategies. Rather they are the bookends of a continuum. It starts at single dimension, with the full intergroup strategy. Then you add one more dimension. Then one more, then another and another until you get to the full interpersonal strategy—a full description of the person—in all of its untidy, unadulterated, and idiosyncratic glory.
This is what philosopher Bertrand Russell describes in a passage in his work The Conquest of Happiness. I call it Russell’s identity gallery. Russell says that each of us has a portrait of ourselves, which depicts an image of who we consider ourselves to be, or, perhaps more accurately, hope to be. When something happens that violates the schema depicted, we become upset. We view ourselves as intelligent and fail a test, or attractive and have a bad hair day. Russell says that instead of having a portrait, we ought to have a gallery. There’s one portrait in which we’re clever, another in which we’re handsome, another in which we’re silly, another in which we’re charitable, and another in which we’re selfish. Russell’s identity gallery is an assertion against essentialism. No human being can reduced to one essential thing or affiliation or trait or single portrait. A person is a rich and varied gallery, larger than the Louvre, of which we can only ever hope to understand a few of the major works, even after a lifetime of study. The intergroup strategy commissions, in the best case, a lone portrait. The interpersonal strategy fills a whole gallery.
This increase in dimensionality is, at its core, what is happening in the Heineken commercial. The prejudiced participants begin with a disdain for one particular dimension of the other person’s identity. When they begin listing adjectives, it is a direct assault on the use of this single dimension, intergroup strategy. By the time it’s revealed that one of the dimensions of who they are happens to be one that the other person doesn’t like, it gets bogged down by everything else they know about their partner. The commercial forces the participants to use the interpersonal strategy, to view the gallery instead of a portrait.
The interpersonal-strategy-as-gallery definition is not quite the right one, though. The substance of the Louvre is not a coherent whole, but merely a collection of pieces housed under the same roof. A person is something more holistic, not an itemized list of affiliations and dispositions. It may be possible to reduce a person to a single dimension, but dimensionality can only locate the full identity of a person, not define it. The interpersonal strategy, when done correctly, is about trying to represent a person’s identity, in the most complete way possible. But what form does this representation take? This is the same question as the one that motivates this half of the book: what does it look like to accurately represent another person’s perspective?
But before we discuss the case of humans, let’s look first at the case of cookies.
In 1982, Patricia Linfield published a report in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology on what she called the complexity-extremity effect. The idea of the complexity-extremity effect is that the more complex your representation of something, the less extreme your evaluation of it will be. She uses the case of cookies to make her point.
In one experiment, she gave participants five cookies to taste and rate. Each cookie could be judged on six possible dimensions. Crucially, these six cookie-quality-dimensions—and don’t say you didn’t learn anything worthwhile in this book—are “ number and quality of the chocolate chips,  degree of sweetness and richness,  degree of buttery taste,  fresh or stale,  soft or firm,  crispy or chewy.” Linfield gathered five kinds of cookies, "three different store-bought types, one delicatessen type, and one homemade type.” Participants were instructed to taste each cookie, analyze it in each dimension, then rate it on a single dimension from unfavorable to favorable (that is, a scale of worst-cookie-ever to best-cookie-ever). "Subjects followed this procedure for all five cookies,” Linfield dutifies notes, “sipping water prior to tasting each cookie.”
The experimental condition that Linfield implements is that one group of participants analyzed the cookies on all six dimensions, whereas another group analyzed the cookies on only two of the dimensions, say, degree of buttery taste and chewiness. The upshot is that participants who analyzed the cookie in all six dimensions had less extreme ratings than those who analyzed only two dimensions. Once you take into account the number and quality of the chocolate chips, and the sweetness, and the butteriness, and the freshness, and the softness, and the chewiness of a particular cookie, it becomes more difficult to make dramatic and categorically sweeping statements about that cookie’s inherent value.
Linfield leverages this insight to make another, albeit less practically useful point. The more complex our representation of another person, the less extreme our evaluation of them—if we think about them in this nuanced way, we’re less likely to think of them as evil or perfection. They’re probably somewhere in the middle. Conversely, the more simplistic our representation of another person, the more extreme our evaluation of them is. It goes both ways. Nazis may reduce Jews to dogs, but we also tend to lionize celebrities to the status of diety. Neither representation allows for much in the way of complexity.
A few years later, Linfield replicated essentially same the extremity-complex effect that she demonstrated for cookies on one’s own self-conception. Participants were given notecards on which traits were written (e.g., outgoing, rebellious, lazy) and told to put them into groups, “according to which traits you think belong together.” This allowed Linfield to calculate a self-complexity score for each person. These self-complexity scores predicted the participant’s negative reaction in a task which they were made to “fail.” The higher the self-complexity, the less negative reaction. It is Russell’s identity gallery experimentally demonstrated.
There is a component of this that concerns factions, also asserted by Linfield. “People,” as Linfield puts it, "have a more complex cognitive representation of their own group than of other groups.” Our baseline complexity for people in our own faction is higher than those in a different faction. When you combine this with the complexity-extremity effect, it suggests that people make more extreme evaluations of those in other factions. Dimensionality is the mechanism upon which the process of dehumanization is based.
If low-dimensionality is the basis of dehumanization, what spurs on the opposite process—that of the Uncle Tom Effect, or what we might think of as humanization? Increasing dimensionality, sure. But understanding someone else is more than just hanging single portraits until the gallery has enough for a showing. I think it is, at this point, worth asking the question: How does an anthropologist represent the perspective of a people they are studying?
An anthropologist goes to a far off land, studies a people, and then comes back to report to her colleagues. The form that this report takes is what anthropologists call an ethnography. Malinowski’s ethnography was Argonauts. What exactly an ethnography is depends greatly on the anthropologist rendering it. But in general they share a commonality. They are, in essence and intention, the story of a people. In other words, a narrative.
Identity is not a laundry list, but a story. That is why, when reflecting back upon a life lived, people write autobiographies rather than put on a gallery showing. And the way we think about others—and this can apply to factions as well as individuals—works the same way. We construct a narrative, itself a form of high-dimensional, not-easily-visualized data. The mechanism by which humanization occurs, expanding a person from a single-dimension in the intergroup strategy to multiple-dimensions in the interpersonal strategy, is narrative. And with the idea of narrative, we are brought back around to the subject with which we began—how exactly is it that Stowe’s book put the Uncle Tom in the Uncle Tom Effect?
Let’s look at a passage from Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It comes near the beginning of the book. The story starts on the Kentucky plantation of Mr. George Shelby and his wife, Mrs. Emily Shelby. The book opens with a dialogue between Mr. Shelby and a slave trader, one Mr. Haley. Haley is from the deep south and has a reputation as a harsh, nasty man—the kind that you don’t want to sell to, if you can help it, and certainly don’t want to be sold to. Mr. Shelby owes a debt to Haley, and Haley has come to Mr. Shelby’s estate to collect. Haley says he will wipe out the debt in exchange for two of Mr. Shelby’s slaves—Uncle Tom, who has been a faithful servant in the Shelby household his entire life, and little Harry, the only child of another slave, Eliza, who is Mrs. Shelby’s closest confidant. This is the scene where Mrs. Shelby finds out that Mr. Shelby has agreed to sell Tom and Harry to the slave trader Haley:
"To that creature?” replies Mrs. Shelby. “You cannot be serious."
"I'm sorry to say that I am," said Mr. Shelby. "I‘ve agreed to sell Tom."
"What! our Tom?—that good, faithful creature!—been your faithful servant from a boy! I can believe now that you could sell little Harry, poor Eliza's only child!” said Mrs. Shelby, in a tone between grief and indignation.
"Well, since you must know all, it is so. I have agreed to sell Tom and Harry both."
"My dear," said Mrs. Shelby, "forgive me. I have been hasty. I was surprised, and entirely unprepared for this. Tom is a noble-hearted, faithful fellow, if he is black. I do believe that if he were put to it, he would lay down his life for you."
"I know it,—I dare say;—but what's the use of all this? I can't help myself.”
Watch here for the difference in strategies employed by Mrs. Shelby and Mr. Shelby employ:
“Why not make a pecuniary sacrifice? I am willing to bear my part of the inconvenience. O, I have tried to do my duty to these poor, simple, dependent creatures. I have taught them the duties of the family, of parent and child, and husband and wife; and how can I bear to have this open acknowledgment that we care for no tie, no duty, no relation, however sacred, compared with money? I have talked with Eliza about her boy—her duty to him as a Christian mother, to watch over him, pray for him, and bring him up in a Christian way; and now what can I say, if you tear him away, and sell him, soul and body, to a profane, unprincipled man, just to save a little money?”
“I’m sorry you feel so about it, Emily,—indeed I am,’’ said Mr. Shelby; "and I respect your feelings. Haley has come into possession of a mortgage, which, if I don't clear off with him directly, will take everything before it. I’ve raked, and scraped, and borrowed, and all but begged,—and the price of these two was needed to make up the balance, and I had to give them up. Haley fancied the child; he agreed to settle the matter that way, and no other. I was in his power, and had to do it. If you feel so to have them sold, would it be any better to have all sold.”
Do you see the way that Mrs. Shelby talks about Tom, Harry, and Eliza? Tom is good and faithful and has been so since he was a boy. He is noble-hearted and black and would lay down his life for Mr. Shelby. He’s a poor, simple, dependent creature. And the way she talks about Eliza as mother to Harry: Eliza has duties to her family, both to her child and her husband. She’s someone with ties, duties, and relations, each of which is sacred. She has a duty as a Christian mother to watch over her son, pray for him, and bring him up in a Christian way. Mrs. Shelby is taking the multidimensional strategy.
Contrast that we with the way that Mr. Shelby talks about them. It’s easily put into one word: Property. He only talks about them in terms of their monetary value to him. The only thing he can say to Emily is that he has agreed to sell them. All that matters is the mortgage and the price and the balance and the settlement. And wouldn’t it be better—he implores Mrs. Shelby to understand—to sell just the two, rather than the whole lot? It’s the essentialist strategy, and the essence is property.
Now look at how they value the situation:
Mrs. Shelby stood like one stricken. Finally, she said: "This is God's curse on slavery!—a bitter, bitter, most accursed thing!—a curse to the master and a curse to the slave! I was a fool to think I could make anything good out of such a deadly evil. It is a sin to hold a slave under laws like ours,—I always felt it was,—I always thought so when I was a girl,—I thought so still more after I joined the church; but I thought I could gild it over,—I thought, by kindness, and care, and instruction, I could make the condition of mine better than freedom—fool that I was!”
“I’m sorry, very sorry, Emily,” said Mr. Shelby, “I’m sorry this takes hold of you so but it will do no good. The fact is Emily, the thing’s done; the bills of sale are already signed, and in Haley’s hands; and you must be thankful it is no worse.”
Mrs. Shelby sees slavery as an accursed institution, and, still, all Mr. Shelby can worry about is the bill of sale. Let’s continue with the story.
“There was,” writes Stowe, “one listener to this conversation whom Mr. And Mrs. Shelby little suspected.” It was Eliza. She had overheard Mr. and Mrs. Shelby’s conservation saying that they were to deliver her only child into the hands of Haley in the morning. Eliza decides that she has no choice but to run away. It’s the only way to save her child. Eliza writes a note to Mrs. Shelby, thanking her for all her kindness, hoping that she will understand that this is her only chance to save her son. Eliza hastily gets together some clothes, wakes little Harry, and whisks him off in the night. Haley finds out in the morning. He takes two of Mr. Shelby’s men and gives chase. Eliza has a head start, but Haley and the men—Andy and Sam—are in pursuit. It’s the dead of winter, frigid nightfall, when Eliza ends up at a barn after following a dirt path along the river all day. Hayley and the men catch up. Here’s the confrontation:
It was an hour after Eliza had laid her child to sleep in the village tavern before the party [Haley, along with Andy and Sam] came riding into the same place. Eliza was standing by the window, looking out in another direction, when Sam’s quick eye caught a glimpse of her. Haley and Andy were two yards behind. At this crisis, Sam contrived to have his hat blown off, and uttered a loud ejaculation, which startled her at once; she drew suddenly back, and the whole train swept by the window, round to the front door.
A thousand lives seemed to be concentrated in that one moment to Eliza. Her room opened by a side door to the river. She caught her child, and sprang down the steps towards it. The trader caught a full glimpse of her, just as she was disappearing down the bank; and throwing himself from his horse, and calling loudly on Sam and Andy, he was after her like a hound after a deer. A moment brought her to the water’s edge. Right on behind they came; and, nerved with strength such as God gives only to the desperate, with one wild cry and flying leap, she vaulted sheer over the turbid current by the shore, on to the raft of ice beyond. It was a desperate leap—impossible to anything but madness and despair; and Haley, Sam and Andy, instinctively cried out, and lifted up their hands, as she did it.
The huge green fragment of ice on which she alighted pitched and creaked as her weight came on it, but she stayed there not a moment. With wild cries and desperate energy she leaped to another and still another cake;—stumbling—leaping—slipping—springing upwards again! Her shoes were gone—her stockings cut from her feet—while blood marked every step; but she saw nothing, felt, nothing, till dimly, as in a dream, she saw the Ohio side, and a man helping her up the bank.
Think about what’s happening in this heroic passage. Could a piece of property pull off that stunt? Of course not. Stowe is forcing our hand into viewing Eliza in a multidimensional strategy. This is what Uncle Tom changed about the public opinion on slavery. Northerners, even those who were not particularly in favor of slavery, didn’t consider slaves beyond their status as property. Why? Not because they were fundamentally bad people. But because they didn’t have to. We don’t like to change our mind. We want to keep things as they are. And, especially when it comes to something of moral importance like our stand on slavery, then we’re not just going to up and change our minds unless something compels us to. That’s what Uncle Tom did. With the introduction of the Fugitive Slave Law, northerners could no longer ignore slavery. They had to actively take a stance to help enforce it. They had to choose a strategy by which they were going to think about slaves—they could think of them as property or as people. Mr. Shelby saw them as property, but Mrs. Shelby saw their humanity. The natural strategy for northerners, as it had been for so long, was that of Mr. Shelby. Uncle Tom opened their eyes to what Mrs. Shelby saw—legitimate human beings.
The fact of the matter in the case of Uncle Tom is that there was nothing stopping northerners thinking about what it is like to be slave by way of empathetically imagining what it’s like to be enslaved. But that’s not what happened. They didn’t change their mind because they got better at understanding a slave’s perspectives. They changed their because they actually got a slave’s perspective. Uncle Tom was an innovation in perspective-getting.