Tuesday, 28 August 2012

On stereotypes

I've seen here and there people write "Stereotypes are wrong". My question now is: Are they? And should we say "Don't stereotype"? 
Let me clarify right from the beginning: My purpose when writing this entry is not encouraging or supporting stereotyping, but, by looking at it from a slightly different angle, I simply want to make another approach to it, as stereotypes are unavoidable. 

- Individuals are individuals. You are unique. But at the same time, whether you want or not, your worldview, way of living and thinking, habits, religious view, political view... are shaped by the society and environment in which you grow up and the language you speak. 

- A stereotype is an empirical generalisation, which shows it must come from somewhere. Saying "birds can fly" isn't entirely correct- there are flightless birds such as ostriches, penguins, cassowaries, kiwis... But the existence of these exceptions doesn't mean the statement "birds can fly" is entirely wrong and therefore should be disregarded. The fact is, the majority of birds can fly. 
One doesn't have to meet all the individuals of a certain group to have a stereotype of that group and to see whether it's valid. If 8 out of 10 people from a particular group fit the stereotype, there's some truth in it. 
In short, to say "stereotypes are relative" is better than to say "stereotypes are wrong". 

- Stereotyping isn't necessarily synonymous with racism, sexism, discrimination or other forms of prejudice. 

- Having a stereotype doesn't mean one believes that it's true for every single person in that group. 
Many people who make a particular generalisation are, at the same time, also conscious of counterexamples.

- People have no trouble overriding a stereotype when they know a person, and stereotypes don't blind people to individual traits. 

- Stereotypes can help avoiding culture shock and knowing how to behave.  
For example, before travelling to France you might be told that the French are irritated when you ask them something in English, so you should try 1st in French and afterwards they will reply in English. The truth is, not every French person gets irritated, but if you actually come to France you can see that it's true to some extent and knowing about it does help you during the trip. 
Or, say, Americans are generally friendly and easygoing (I know, it's a stereotype), so when coming to Norway they might face culture shock if not knowing beforehand that Norwegians are generally cold and distant with a rather blank face, so they might think Norwegians are unfriendly, whereas Norwegians simply don't express much emotion on their faces. 

- Stereotypes can help when you, for instance, walk through part of the city with which you're unfamiliar. By recognising certain established patterns of the typical criminal you can become more careful and save yourself. 

- Can we stop stereotyping? Can we stop generalising? 
No. As human beings, we are not omniscient. We are limited. As written above our thinking is shaped by our culture and society, by our surroundings and the people around us. We might realise the limitations of stereotypes and manage to see individuals as individuals, and if we try, can see and accept exceptions, or counterexamples, of a stereotype we've held, but the idea of having no stereotype at all is (almost) impossible. There are always some stereotypes existing somewhere in your brain. No one is 100% neutral, objective and unbiased. 

- The problem is not to have a stereotype, but whether it's so fixed that you only see what you want to see, and whether it leads to serious, disastrous, inhumane... acts. 
In conclusion, what we have to do is not to deny the existence of stereotypes. We 1st must be aware of the stereotypes we're having, and then aware of their limitations, then try to get rid of the tendency to only look at the individuals that confirm it and and ignore those that don't, whilst trying to see individuals as individuals. And don't push it to the point of sexism or racism and such things. 

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