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The Double Edged Sword of Stereotyping

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, Nov. 24, 2018
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Stereotypes permeate our every day lives. Whether we like it or not, our brains are wired for making quick estimations and judgments based on patterns and pattern recognition.

This very pattern we're looking for to identify at a glance is what a stereotype is. And it's very useful for survival, has been since we were nomads and not the top of the food chain all the time.

So in a sense, it's unfair to vilify stereotyping and stereotypes since they serve a very real purpose- to help us quickly estimate a situation so we can decide on the course of action.

In modern society however, this vital mechanism can also lead to very sinister social problems based on malevolent or malicious stereotyping designed to keep social groups segregated from each other and unable to assimilate with each other while at the same time maintaining a fabricated power structure that is based on exploitation and subjugation in order to yield benefits for whoever is its primary recipient.

And yet at the same time, not all stereotypes are malevolently disseminated. Some stem from genuine characteristics found in a high percentage (or on the average) within the population the stereotype is about.

So, for example, the stereotype that Greeks are loud and gesticulate like they all direct airplanes to land is actually valid. It doesn't stem from anything malicious- it's just how we tend to be within our culture and our country. It isn't offensive and it's not a value judgment. It's just a trait you're very likely to find in Greeks of all shapes and sizes.

However the stereotype that Greeks are lazy and unethical is grossly inaccurate, and was purposefully disseminated in the beginning of the Greek crisis and the whole imposition of outside control in the country, in order to justify to the international public opinion not only the plight that had befallen us, but also that we deserved punishment and to go through everything we're going through without the need for proper (and unwanted) accountability for the situation.

Both types of stereotyping are also reflected in art, from novels to movies to comics and webcomics, since art is a reflection of the era it was created in.

Unfortunately, the poisonous, malignant strain of stereotyping is so pervasive and toxic, that in our effort to castigate it and (correctly) ban it from our daily lives and our art, we throw the baby out with the bathwater and we tend to ban ALL stereotyping.

So much so, that our multicoloured, wondrous world of variety and cultures tends to look blander and blander and more uniformal- especially in art. The efforts of forced (as opposed to natural) variety and inclusion seems to be turning the people and places in the works of art more and more uniformal, less unique. It's as if it doesn't matter where a character is from anymore, it doesn't matter what cultural experiences he/she had growing up, there's no way for a character not to have been part of a huge range of diversity from the get go (thus robbing them of the opportunity to experience culture shock and acquire new skills and experiences based on that). It seems that culture becomes so ubiquitously standard that it doesn't matter anymore what any one character brings to the table in terms of that: it'll be the same as all the others. Their turn of phrase will be the same, their nuances and sensibilities will be the same and their manner of approach to their surroundings and the cosmos won't differ much.

And in the same token, for the audience, where the character is from has little importance (unless they belong to whichever nation is Hollywood's go-to villain) and they're unlikely to have a chance to immerse themselves in any culture and learn through art about civilizations. Everything is fused, but we're not able to understand the parts that make the fusion because we're too afraid to show a culture's, a religion's and a nation's unique characteristics in a natural, organic manner and not conflate them with their personality traits or a very uninformed version that renders them into caricatures.

Shaming writers and authors for trying to write cultures other than theirs, rather than make it so that they can experience them to the point they can transcribe them onto paper or screen is truly an indicator of the terrible risk we're running of impoverishing our very own art and our very own experiences, retreating into our assigned boxes of segregated categories of political correctness and ‘inclusion’ without cohesion in an atmosphere of terror and defensiveness.

Stereotypes are a double-edged sword. But if we abstained from learning to master everything that had sharp edges, we'd still be unable to use knives to cut our own bread.

What do you think?

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Abt_Nihil at 5:05AM, Nov. 30, 2018

The stereotypes people use and the way they use them is best explained by their sociocultural environment, I think. Hence, I agree with you - education and art (in Germany, post-WWII literature played a large role) have pivotal roles. As for the resurgence of toxic ethnical and racial stereotypes, there is no singular explanation, and the factors you mentioned may all play a role. However, what I meant to stress below is the fact that the mere availability and general tolerance of such stereotypes plays a crucial role; if they are ever-present, their use will snowball, independently of the content or actual (statistical) applicability of these stereotypes. That is why interventions have to also happen at the level of the general availability/tolerance of stereotypes.

Tantz_Aerine at 3:50PM, Nov. 28, 2018

Abt_Nihil: Ah, perhaps I made it seem that way. To be honest, I was thinking of education and using art (pop art/mainstream art) to do what I described (hence the essay) rather than appealing to people's rationality (which I called 'bottom-up'). I was under the impression that the youth in Germany tend to 'rediscover' antisemitism largely due to the fact they aren't properly educated about the pre war and WWII era and the Holocaust, and revisionist trends (like holocaust denial) are being ill-handled, coupled with bad economy and bad handling of phenomena like migration which makes people feel threatened.

Abt_Nihil at 7:40AM, Nov. 28, 2018

I thought of your position as more optimistic because it seems to require that you can reach all people by appealing to their rationality. However, the proliferation of gender and racial stereotypes is dynamic, and it highly depends on how aggressively these are promoted by some sources and by how oblivious the general populace is to their toxicity. Frankly, you need to shut those sources up and educate people from the get-go. As a German, I am very aware of how this went with Jewish stereotypes: You can find many elderly people in Germany who (perhaps unconsciously) still spew antisemitic rants, and very young people who seem to "rediscover" antisemitism due to the current laissez-faire approach toward right-wing positions (what right-wingers defend as "free speech"); but those who were brought up between the 60s and 90s in Western Germany are, by and large, far less antisemitic. Why? Because after the 60s, Germany undertook systematic efforts to undermine antisemitism.

Tantz_Aerine at 7:01AM, Nov. 28, 2018

2/2 expose people to actual ethnic, cultural and national behaviors of a wide range of individuals and letting people be immersed in other cultures without sanitizing them or trying to pretend they all look alike for the sake of 'safe spaces'. I'm not optimistic at all. In fact, I think you're the one who's more optimistic- what I propose is a thorough bottom-up acculturation englightenment of audiences cross culturally without the PC culture policing and expunging the cultural nuances it fears might not be 'appropriate' or 'misunderstood' so that toxic stereotypes will have little purchase in people's minds. I don't believe it can be done by a top-down sloppy political crack-down on freedom of expression and speech.

Tantz_Aerine at 6:56AM, Nov. 28, 2018

Abt_Nihil: There's no way you can avoid stereotypes. They're part of our nature, our brains are wired in a way that we constantly make them. Taking your antisemitism example: no stereotype has been more officially banned than this. The more it is banned the more it is propagated and even used as a 'resistance' badge against the 'deep state'. Banning the usage didn't even hurt the stereotype or minimize its use. And at the opportune social moment, it's blown back up and is snowballing. Research has shown that stereotypes are used uncritically when there is no other information to go on except those. And right now the sanitization of art is making this even more of a problem. To get rid of the toxic stereotype you have to expose people to the proper cognitions, without banning anything and thus romanticizing it to those that seek to buck the system but don't know how. I agree on undermining the use of the stereotype- but you won't do it by banning it. Only by using it as a gateway to 1/2

Abt_Nihil at 2:28AM, Nov. 28, 2018

Maybe I'm not quite as optimistic as you. I believe anyone who does not explicitly take a critical stance toward stereotypes is likely to abuse them, and that their mere proliferation has toxic effects, even without having to assume evil intent in the individuals using them. Current cognitive science is overflowing with research into cognitive biases. The more stereotypes are readily available, the more people will use them uncritically. Hence, at some point, you have to clean up biases politically, which means to make a systematic effort to undermine their use. I'll leave it open what measures exactly should be taken, but I don't think we should leave it at saying that stereotypes can be both good and bad and thus should keep them in use. The way antisemitism is propagated largely implicitly, but wrough terrible consequences, can be a fine example, as it is based largely on stereotypes about the Jewish, which in many groups and at many points in history have sadly become commonplace.

Tantz_Aerine at 10:02AM, Nov. 27, 2018

2/2 But denying their existence is simply burying our heads in the sand and letting them run rampant precisely in the way we don't wish them to. Society cannot be sterilized. It should be *immunized*. And you can't immunize society by keeping vital elements of it taboo, to be mystified and exploited by the very forces you abhor. At least that's how I've come to see life, based on my experiences and my science.

Tantz_Aerine at 10:01AM, Nov. 27, 2018

Abt_Nihil: People will toxically judge others on anything and everything if that is their M.O. Banning or villifying the use of things only on the possibility that some people will wrongfully use them is wrong. Especially if this possibility is used as the excuse to basically expunge a whole set of vital elements from art in the name of 'protection' or 'safe spaces'. For example, I haven't seen a Greek character portrayed properly in non Greek art. Not once. Either they're caricatures or they're so bland they're unrecognizable. In real life, I can *tell* who is Greek by sheer body language, no matter how at odd that Greek person may be with their Greek heritage or not. In art, I almost never can. And this is a direct result of deculturizing and de-ethnicising art in the name of 'protection' from 'stereotypes'. Stereotypes are first-impression heuristics. They are not MEANT to be permanent. They are meant to be a primary assessment to be amended as you get to know the person. 1/2

Abt_Nihil at 6:18AM, Nov. 27, 2018

I can't say I have a solution ready at hand or a fixed opinion on this - I'm still struggling with it. Basically, I accept that heuristics associated with "stereotypes" (under a potentially non-toxic interpretation) can be useful, such as: when I meet A, and A belongs to group B, B is so likely to do C that it is reasonable for me to assume that he will do C, or fall under the associated stereotype. However, by assuming these heuristics, one might still judge any given individual unfairly. That is, heuristic advantages and ("toxic") discrimination might often go hand in hand. It is easy to say that we should abolish toxic discrimination which is based on statistically invalid generalizations, but what if some generalization is both statistically valid but also toxic for the individuals to whom the generalization does not apply? And I'm not so sure behaviour and value judgments are always easy to disentangle (see popular ideas about "typical" male/female behaviour/cognition).

Tantz_Aerine at 4:21AM, Nov. 27, 2018

Perhaps it's hard to disentangle. It doesn't mean it shouldn't be. It's actually not that hard: the toxic stereotype is always with regards to a value judgment. The non-toxic one is always with regards to behavioral patterns and cognitive approaches without value judgments. A stereotype is a core cluster of trajectories that present a framework relevant to an ethnicity and/or culture. It doesn't bind anyone to conformity. However several studies have shown that we all approach the world and our environment through the decoding, so to speak, lenses given to us by the culture we're brought up in. That is regardless of whether we accept that culture's norms or not (and consequently the 'beer/sports' stereotypes). Regardless what we do with a character, we should be aware of their cultural origins, and the non-toxic stereotypes is a good start for that.

irrevenant at 10:58PM, Nov. 26, 2018

For what it's worth, my interpretation of the term "stereotype" matches Abt's. Merriam-Webster's definition is ": something conforming to a fixed or general pattern especially a standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group and that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgement". ie. being toxic (prejudiced, uncritical) is part and parcel of the common usage of the word "stereotype". Personally I'm not sure that what you consider "non-toxic" stereotyping can be disentangled. We can use terms like "national character" and "cultural norms" but ultimately you're always going to hit that wall of: people are individuals and for any given example of "X group do Y" there are going to be individuals who that definition is excluding - especially when it's a cluster of traits. PS. I speak as an Australian who likes neither beer nor sport. :)

Tantz_Aerine at 7:39AM, Nov. 26, 2018

Abt_Nihil: you give a different definition to stereotyping than the one I operationally defined so I could make my point. Of course what you suggest as example is wrong both artistically and socially, but it's not what I discussed. Are you objecting to my using the term 'stereotyping'? Or in the concept of stereotyping having a toxic and non toxic side? Because that's what it seems to me- that you disagree that the term should be applied to what I'm advocating. If so, how would you call it? And how would you call it so that you'd avoid it being conflated with 'stereotyping' since it's often the case, and people tend to be very reductive of an individual's identity in order to avoid being accused of stereotyping? As for the rest of what you're saying, I think we can all agree that it's the toxic part of stereotyping that of course shouldn't be applied in anything, anywhere. I thought I was quite clear on that, albeit brief as it wasn't the point I was trying to make.

Abt_Nihil at 6:15AM, Nov. 26, 2018

@Tantz: While your post is sufficiently nuanced, it seems to me your general objective is to defend stereotyping. However, what you actually defend - namely showing differences between individuals which are caused by different upbringing in different cultural circumstances - I wouldn't call that "stereotyping" to begin with. Stereotyping seems to me to be an uncritical assumption that any given individual behaves that way because it belongs to some culture or other, usually coupled with some reductive understanding of what is typical of that culture - so much so that by this assumption, the freedom of expression of that individual is restricted by that very assumption. That is, if you reduce my being German to enjoying "typical" German things, that would be stereotyping (and seriously piss me off), because it reduces my individuality to the already rather narrow German stereotype.

usedbooks at 1:43PM, Nov. 25, 2018

Sometimes I'm wrong in my guesses and have to switch gears, but often I'm correct. Mental profiling has its uses, but it shouldn't override actual in-the-moment observations and interactions.

usedbooks at 1:41PM, Nov. 25, 2018

Although I wouldn't say any of the thoughts aloud, working in tourism/visitor services, I do "mental profiling" when people enter a visitor center. It helps me anticipate what they need and also puts my brain in the right gear to facilitate what speed, detail, and resources may be needed. The 20-somethings are my favorites. They are very to-the-point. Usually a question about where a trail is located and please give me a map and out the door. Older people talk a long time, just shooting the breeze or complaining to no end. Bikers are mostly stretching legs and want direction to food and gas sometimes buy a sticker or a patch. Families with kids are looking for activity. English people are often trying to get road directions. Scandinavians are usually hiking and interested in souvenirs. The hardcore park-goers have their NPS passport in hand and want to get the cancellation stamp asap. Can be identified by cap and t-shirt from a different park in another state.

PaulEberhardt at 11:21AM, Nov. 25, 2018

@bravo: True. As far as the German stereotype is concerned, I notice that some Bavarian stereotypes have been mingled with the old Prussian ones, though, and that's because they're a lot better at marketing. The mock-Oktoberfest beer tents that pop up even here in the North these days still look ridiculously out of place, but they became incredibly popular, in pretty much the same way Italian, Chinese and Turkish restaurants have been for decades. The Bavarians have always done more to preserve their traditions than most others in Germany, and even if they of course market them in perfect tourist trap style pushed to the very limits, they never had to look as hard to find something marketable than people on the former Prussian territory would have to.

PaulEberhardt at 10:24AM, Nov. 25, 2018

I think the best way to tackle stereotypes is taking the bull by the horns. We can't get rid of them, they almost always came into being for some real reason. However, they are almost always exaggerated too and that's makes them excellent material to be made fun of. I even do that to the point of making up stereotypes of my own and shamelessly add them to the list (like my actually rather unflattering way of caricaturing a female freshman student, to give but one example). It's not so much about trying to banish stereotypes but rather a matter of knowing where the lines are that you don't cross under any circumstances. It has to be funs for those who are lampooned, too. This of course requires them to have a good sense of humour, and of course every group has it's share of idiots who haven't. Nevertheless, we should have the courage to use stereotypes anyway, because treading on the latters' toes is almost a moral obligation for a comic artist.

bravo1102 at 10:22AM, Nov. 25, 2018

And then there are some European nationalities that have seemed to have packaged and merchandised their national stereotypes for mass consumption. Oh, we're really like that, now come fly our national airline for a great vacation.

bravo1102 at 10:15AM, Nov. 25, 2018

Like so many national stereotypes, Germans is based on things going as far back as the Thirty Years War. National food stereotypes often stemmed from the army's rations. German soldiers ate cabbage, often preserved in vinegar and sausage. So they became known as "krauts ". However the stereotype of a German is really a Prussian as opposed to a Bavarian or Hessian. Bavarian regiments in World War I were always quick to point that out to whoever occupied the opposing trenches. "No need to worry Tommy, we're Bavarians! Have anything to trade?"

PaulEberhardt at 9:57AM, Nov. 25, 2018

Let me admit it right away: I do like beer. And sauerkraut to some degree - although, as anyone from Poland would point out, this stereotype is quite off the mark, because the Polish are much more proud of their sauerkraut than us Germans are. Btw. I hate getting up early and won't do so unless I absolutely have to, and every inch of my desk plus most of my floor usually creaks ominously under the clutter. :)

Tantz_Aerine at 4:45PM, Nov. 24, 2018

Irreverent: you're more optimistic than me. Let's hope you're right.

irrevenant at 4:30PM, Nov. 24, 2018

@Tantz_Aerine I think we're probably in agreement there. :) I suspect that too is largely a matter of time. When a society that's not used to representing minority groups starts doing so, early efforts are going to be clunky. 'Early' is relative, BTW - Marvel Comics' Luke Cafe in the 70s was minority representation at the level of stereotype. As you point out the pendulum has now possibly swung too for the other way. But IMO it's on its way back now, to hopefully settle in the middle. Shows like "Empire", films like "All the boys I've loved before" etc. are very focused on authentic representation. Lazy writing will always be with us, of course, but I expect that to trend towards more authentic over time rather than less.

JaymonRising at 9:39AM, Nov. 24, 2018

The issue with stereotypes in the USA is that sensitivity to some has rendered them racist. Just ask 4Kids!

Chickfighter at 5:44AM, Nov. 24, 2018

Stereotypes and tropes are alike in this way. Both can be useful tools to be aware of when creating stories, but one must be aware that one is using a tool for a useful purpose rather than simply to be lazy.

usedbooks at 4:50AM, Nov. 24, 2018

As a Canadian Scottish English Italian from Appalachia, I am especially hairy, burn easily, apologize for everything, and hoarde onto random items in case they can be of use later.


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