We Need Stereotypes

Focusing On The Wrong Problem

I come across one thing in my encounter with some gay people. It is a kind of narrative that lays out experiences from their childhood, say the time between when they were four and ten. One that is summed up in the words: I knew I was different. From the context that preludes those words we the listeners get a sense that growing up our narrators must have gone through devastating forms of alienation – the kind involving ugly forms of ostracizing and bullying. Something no one should be made to endure. 

In a recent interaction, a similar narrative came up. I raised a question to satisfy a growing curiosity I’d never gotten a chance to explore, at the risk of coming across as insensitive. I asked: how did you, at such a young age, know you were different? A quick response was “you knew you were different because other people treated you different“.

This did nothing to dismantle my curiosity. In the response laid a suggestion that everyone in the world, besides the narrator and those who sympathized with him, was somehow treated the same. I found it difficult to make sense of everyone else being treated with a certain kind of sameness, being treated with a fairness that somehow excluded me. So I decided to make case of why it was unfair, to himself and to others, to be wrapped in the idea that he was the only one picked up by fate to endure an unfairness from a mean world.

So there I was, with a group trying to form a brotherhood of people who had been slighted, pointing out that nothing about being slighted makes them different, suggesting that everyone has gone through some form of alienation, and sitting to ruminate about an unfairness everyone goes through in one form or another is to fill a broken cup with water in hope that you might offer it to quench the longing of a thirsty man. Lets say I was ostracized from the group.

The idea that people carry an image of us, distorted in ways we can do nothing about, is a prevalent one. It is, I think, what lies at the heart of the “I knew I was different” narrative. We mean to suggest that people outside of ourselves carry a representation of us, one in which we aren’t quite right. We call that representation a “stereotype”, and seem to suggest that to create or have one is wrong. But to buy into the “I knew I was different” narrative is to adopt the idea that certain kinds of people carry a misrepresentation of us, which in itself is a form of having a stereotype. Blondes are dumb, females are weak, straight people are homophobic all carry misleading representations. One we should play no part in creating or adopting.

But with all the awareness surrounding evils that come from having stereotypes, the evils still exist. And the reason is rather simple. It is because we have been highlighting the wrong problem.

The Problem

Pride and Prejudice portrays life in a rural society. It tells of the way in which characters Elizabeth and Darcy first view each other and how they grow from initial misunderstandings to later mutual enlightenment. The initial misunderstanding result from what you might call a stereotype: rich men are arrogant; no one wants an “unattractive” girl.

In some cases stereotypes are right. And most of us (if not all of us) have models we use as stereotypes. The problem isn’t with stereotypes; the problem is with what comes with it: prejudice.

A study of the words “stereotype” and “prejudice” (using Google n-gram viewer) shows that the former is used far more frequently that the latter. This reveals how invested we are in the wrong discussion. What we should be discussing is prejudice – the tendency to form and latch onto premature judgments.

Suspend Judgment

Stereotypes can be helpful; there is negligible need for knowing the totality of another human being before giving him a chance. We use them as guides in our navigation of the world. We present new encounters with images we have stored up from previous experiences. We ask: what has something similar to this new encounter taught me? Is the lesson good or bad? Will it bring me pain or pleasure? Depending on what comes out at the other side of the question, we either open our arms to welcome the goodness, or clench them to run or fight. Time and space present limitations to get to know the totality of another human being. So rather than try to pull down stereotypes what we need to concern ourselves with is how we can go about building better ones. And the way to do so is to cultivate the habit of suspending judgment.

What suspending judgment does is that it helps to build stereotypes that are closer to accurate, closer to the truth. And in the face of truth stereotypes (in true meaning of the word) built tend to fall away (because you are able to see more details and say oh, so this is what this thing is…), much the same way light vanishes a shadow to the degree with which it reveals the object upon which it falls.

Assuming you know isn’t the same thing as knowing. A shadow can tell you something about its object-source. However, it remains a mere representation. And in most cases a representation that can be distorted (using light at different angles). Assuming you know is (arguably) the greatest sin. It could be what led the serpent to offer Eve the forbidden fruit (if you are conversant with Jewish origin stories). The serpent assumed it knew what was best. The consequences of its assumption is what we (according to the Jewish origin story) now suffer. Never put an assumption in the place of a conclusion. Always find the truth.

The Truth

A famous Jewish teacher is recorded to have quipped: judge not, so that ye may escape judgment and your mother may have worded the same message as: know before you talk. Great ideas pass the test of time not because they are great but because they are true.

In a study of the emotions that come from pain, Arthur Kleinman, a medical anthropologist, gathered evidence from the way people talk about pain to suggest that emotions aren’t universal at all and culture, particularly the way we use language can influence how we feel. Seeing a Hollywood character say I knew I was different need not make us reduce the complexity that is our emotion into a meaningless clause surrounded by an equally watery context. Seek truth. Find it within yourself. When all is said and done, what we leave behind is the truth set free from within us.

Imagine a world where everyone tried to know a little bit more about a person, a topic or an idea. I contend it would be a world where people gave one another a chance, where people got better at connecting with the inner bits of each other, where people sort out to understand rather than settled for what they thought they knew, where people were a lot happier. This, I think, comes when we have the right kind of stereotype.


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