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The Merits of Stereotypes

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"The trouble with people is not that they don't know but that they know so much that ain't so."
Henry Wheeler Shaw

Do stereotypes usefully represent real knowledge or merely reflect counter-productive prejudice?

Stereotypes invariably refer in a generalized manner to - often arbitrary - groups of people, usually minorities. Stereotypes need not necessarily be derogatory or cautionary, though most of them are. The "noble savage" and the "wild savage" are both stereotypes. Indians in movies, note Ralph and Natasha Friar in their work titled "The Only Good Indian - The Hollywood Gospel" (1972) are overwhelmingly drunken, treacherous, unreliable, and childlike. Still, some of them are as portrayed as unrealistically "good".

But alcoholism among Native Americans - especially those crammed into reservations - is, indeed, more prevalent than among the general population. The stereotype conveys true and useful information about inebriation among Indians. Could its other descriptors be equally accurate?

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It is hard to unambiguously define, let alone quantify, traits. At which point does self-centerdness become egotism or the pursuit of self-interest - treachery? What precisely constitutes childlike behavior? Some types of research cannot even be attempted due to the stifling censorship of political correctness. Endeavoring to answer a simple question like: "Do blacks in America really possess lower IQ's and, if so, is this deficiency hereditary?" has landed many an American academic beyond the pale.

The two most castigated aspects of stereotypes are their generality and their prejudice. Implied in both criticisms is a lack of veracity and rigor of stereotypes. Yet, there is nothing wrong with generalizations per se. Science is constructed on such abstractions from private case to general rule. In historiography we discuss "the Romans" or "ancient Greeks" and characterize them as a group. "Nazi Germany", "Communist Russia", and "Revolutionary France" are all forms of groupspeak.

In an essay titled "Helping Students Understand Stereotyping" and published in the April 2001 issue of "Education Digest", Carlos Cortes suggest three differences between "group generalizations" and "stereotypes":

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"Group generalizations are flexible and permeable to new, countervailing, knowledge - ideas, interpretations, and information that challenge or undermine current beliefs. Stereotypes are rigid and resistant to change even in the face of compelling new evidence.

Second, group generalizations incorporate intragroup heterogeneity while stereotypes foster intragroup homogeneity. Group generalizations embrace diversity - 'there are many kinds of Jews, tall and short, mean and generous, clever and stupid, black and white, rich and poor'. Stereotypes cast certain individuals as exceptions or deviants - 'though you are Jewish, you don't behave as a Jew would, you are different'.

Finally, while generalizations provide mere clues about group culture and behavior - stereotypes purport to proffer immutable rules applicable to all the members of the group. Stereotypes develop easily, rigidify surreptitiously, and operate reflexively, providing simple, comfortable, convenient bases for making personal sense of the world. Because generalizations require greater attention, content flexibility, and nuance in application, they do not provide a stereotype's security blanket of permanent, inviolate, all-encompassing, perfectly reliable group knowledge."

It is commonly believed that stereotypes form the core of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of xenophobia. Stereotypes, goes the refrain, determine the content and thrust of prejudices and propel their advocates to take action against minorities. There is a direct lineage, it is commonly held, between typecasting and lynching.

It is also claimed that pigeonholing reduces the quality of life, lowers the expectations, and curbs the accomplishments of its victims. The glass ceiling and the brass ceiling are pernicious phenomena engendered by stereotypes. The fate of many social policy issues - such as affirmative action, immigration quotas, police profiling, and gay service in the military - is determined by stereotypes rather than through informed opinion.

USA Today Magazine reported the findings of a survey of 1000 girls in grades three to twelve conducted by Harris Interactive for "Girls". Roughly half the respondents thought that boys and girls have the same abilities - compared to less than one third of boys. A small majority of the girls felt that "people think we are only interested in love and romance".

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Somewhat less than two thirds of the girls were told not to brag about things they do well and were expected to spend the bulk of their time on housework and taking care of younger children. Stereotypical thinking had a practical effect: girls who believe that they are as able as boys and face the same opportunities are way more likely to plan to go to college.

But do boys and girls have the same abilities? Absolutely not. Boys are better at spatial orientation and math. Girls are better at emotions and relationships. And do girls face the same opportunities as boys? It would be perplexing if they did, taking into account physiological, cognitive, emotional, and reproductive disparities - not to mention historical and cultural handicaps. It boils down to this politically incorrect statement: girls are not boys and never will be.

Still, there is a long stretch from "girls are not boys" to "girls are inferior to boys" and thence to "girls should be discriminated against or confined". Much separates stereotypes and generalizations from discriminatory practice.

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Sam Vaknin ( http://samvak.tripod.com ) is the author of Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain - How the West Lost the East. He served as a columnist for Global Politician, Central Europe Review, PopMatters, Bellaonline, and (more...)
 

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