Ah, stereotypes!

Posted 2.21.18

SHAWVILLE, QUEBEC | We're constantly reminded to avoid stereotyping, but I can't get through a single day without making a stereotype of one kind or another, especially to myself. I've tried to stop, but, to be frank, it seems most conversations would grind to a halt. (Or else blow into long-winded storms of convoluted verbiage.)

I do find some consolation in realizing that a lot of stereotypes are better characterized as generalizations, not stereotypes. There are differences, besides the moralizing in, "stereotypes, bad; generalizations, good."

Generalizations are like shorthand summaries of statistical data. "Women are generally lighter than men," for example. That's a stereotype, but, being neutral, is better seen as a generalization. It's generalizing data.

Stereotypes, on the other hand, are not made on the basis of any real statistical averages, as much as made on value judgements, religious cultural or racial prejudices, or just our quick-and-dirty observations. There are positive stereotypes.

Try it - - pay attention to your own stereotyping and generalizing. You're likely not as criminal as you may have feared.

These mass-statements ("all", "everyone", "without exception", etc) are everywhere in our conversation and public discourse - - and they are often very useful. In a way, they are the real basis, the building-blocks of all language.

We must generalize or stereotype what "red" looks like to everyone, if we use the word "red." Yet none of us know what red looks like to others. We're not inside others' heads. This doesn't stop us from using the word, and therefore we are stereotyping "red" all the time. Otherwise we'd need a separate word for every individual object, person, event, action, thought, wish, even dream!

I recently overheard someone comment to another, "you have a word for everything!", to which the other replied, "there is a word for everything." Not quite true. There is a word for every type of thing, and when we single out one instance, we are in fact stereotyping.

So stereotyping is not a bad thing to do. In a way, that condemnation is a stereotype about stereotypes.

How we use language is what matters. Using stereotypes intentionally to demean others is certainly disgraceful. And untrue. Specifically negative stereotypes - - "dumb blondes," "arrogant Americans" - - are doubly objectionable since they are not true and are used to demean.

Using stereotypes in humour or casual conversation is pretty widespread. I'm guilty. And even if we stress the humour intended, it opens the door to less benign uses, and shows a lack of respect. "Harmless jokes" about the Irish or Jews maybe be harmless, even self-depreciating in intent, but they aren't harmless in effect. Natural? Maybe or maybe not, "natural" is a huge stereotype itself, and once a stereotype or generalization is out of our mouths, who will draw the line between harmless humour and malicious intent?

All to say, we have to watch making a stereotype of stereotypes themselves. They're not all bad, and maybe it's the OK ones that are the generalizations. How to keep them separate? Good luck with that.


Copyright © 2018 Fred Ryan/Log Cabin Chronicles/2.18