One of the things I remember clearly in primary school were the times I became something of a truant. During some autumn afternoons, the football players would leave their respective form classes, and the remaining pupils would coalesce into a few bigger classes and work on some dull English comprehension. At the age of 12 or so, being forced to squash up with some girls and having to face the fact I was rubbish at football had no upside.
My best friend however had a good plan; by walking out of the class with the football players, and then just before leaving the building suddenly realising our mistake - "oh, this is the football team." - we would then pretend to go back to our class, but actually wander off to a quiet washroom and wait out the end of that day
This is a classic play on the weakness of a system. If we examined it as a security expert might, maybe a Bruce Schneier, we would quicky see what the issue was. The football team wasn't a well identified group, even to its members. The boys knew they themselves were in the team, but could not be certain of our status. It certainly wasn't to teachers - the only one who knew was the sports master - and of course we specifically avoided him.
Even when you think you can uniquely identify a group, you often find that it is not so. If twelve football players ran out onto a pitch, you may first try to match shirt numbers to the team list on the program notes to find the man not playing. But of course the printed list may be erroneous, because the list was arbitrary anyway - apart from if there was more than one goal keeper, any combination of 11 could be deemed valid. Only the manager actually knows.
If five horseman appeared on a hill claiming to represent the apocalypse, we would note that the bible contradicts this number. But with only sketchy evidence, we may not be able to workout the "correct 4".
To avoid the football problem, you have to be wary about what you do with groups. Self defined groups, such as atheists or stamp collectors, are safer to work with as their beliefs or habits precisely define them. Oddly, once others get attached to controlling the definition of a group, redefining it can be a bother. I had to wait sometime before the UK government allowed me to describe myself as "White and Black Caribbean" as opposed to "other". Even though it was still their definition.
Abstract relative groups such as "the poor", or "the rich" work for the opposite reason - very few people self identify with them and so they remain abstract. "The better off should pay more tax" never means you or me. But it serves to tell us which direction any dividing line will fall.
The media often like to create catch-all groups, that they have no ability to define, and yet want to link real people to. An invidious recent example is "rioter". This isn't just an abstract term, as some are still being tried for the events that started in London last year. Most people would happily see a hooded bloke arrested for breaking into a shop and taking out valuable consumer items. Because that is always criminal behaviour. But standing outside a shop, walking into a shop, or simply being on camera near a police line - which of these acts defines a rioter?
I can fairly label a family group as "picnickers" if they came to a park with the sole purpose of setting up a picnic, and had the tools to so. I could claim they had the intention to picnic before they set off. I could recognize that a picnic was in progress, and recognize those directly implicated in the picnic. That cricket ball that penetrated the teacloth area was nevertheless not an ongoing part of the picnic. No food or drink could pass your mouth, and I could still justify your group identity as a picnicker - food and drink consumption is a contributing factor, but not a necessary and sufficient condition.
Unfortunately, life is not a picnic.
One topical and ill defined group are "Republican voters". People self identify as "Republicans", not "Republican voters". A Republican prefers one party's ideas over the other, but do not automatically support every dignitary flying their colours. The best this can mean is "people who voted Republican in the last election". But you don't know who voted for who in a secret ballot - even though, you may be persuaded by the media that you do. You can ask Republicans what they think of immigration, but you can't ask Republican voters. But of course the term "voters" lends a definite force to an article or speech, because an abstract term has become a set of people with real actions.
A simple definition problem exists for faith groups; children born into a faith but not old enough to define themselves inhabit a sort of twiglight zone. The media are fairly aggressive in identifying, for example, "Muslim protesters" when they are actually talking about a bunch of teenagers whose ideas are still more received than lived. The lazy journalists maybe technically correct, but to expect teens to be the most level headed representatives of any group other than "students" is just dumb. A similar fate fell on "black youths" who then became "blacks", thus ignoring a generation or two.
But it is machine pattern matching combined with human group identification that will lead to some enormous injustices in the security theatre. In an attempt to automate border controls, it won't be long before a camera connected to some recognition software takes over the job of checking whether a traveller belongs to a known "risk factor" group. By predictably picking out brown, beard wearing men, there is the risk that an artificially defined group becomes institutionalised, like all the best racism. Yet with no human having to make any politically incorrect decisions, you can bet this type of automation will be popular.
Good news for Afghani translators - Remember how I blogged about the Afgahni men and women who have acted as translators for British forces should be allowed asylum in the UK? The Government ...
6 hours ago