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Overcoming stereotypes

30 September, 2015 - 16:44

Stereotyping is surely one of the most pernicious and troublesome temptations of human thought. Its danger is probably implicit in the very nature of language. Language appears to be rooted in classified experiences, different events or things lumped into the same "class" or category, which in turn is expressed by a word.

"Cow", for example, is a noun which refers to a large number of different individual animals which share certain characteristics in common. It is a useful term because it points to the existence of these general characteristics, but it is dangerous to the extent that differences between individual cows—Bessy and Bossie—are ignored even though they may be important. (Bossie may be good-natured; Bessy may be inclined to kick or bite people; Bossie's milk may be contaminated, while Bessie's is pure and safe to drink.)

The semanticist S.I. Hayakawa suggested that it is good to remind ourselves periodically that "cow1is not cow 2", that merely knowing what cows have in common is not all we need to know, that individual differences can be all-important. He went on to note that keeping this fact in mind is even more important when dealing with words relating to types of people: Jew, black person, Communist, Republican, etc. 1

When we stereotype, we ignore individual differences and assume that knowing one thing about somebody tells us all we need to know: "When you've seen one Jew, you've seen them all." "All men are alike!" "Black people are lazy!" "You can always tell a Harvard man, but you can't tell him much!"

As Hayakawa notes, if a man assumes that all Jews are the same, and that all they care about is money, he may be so busy watching his wallet that he does not notice that this particular Jew is about to run away with his wife. Or he may lose the opportunity to make a wonderful friend. By adding index numbers to our thinking, we can remember that stereotypes and prejudice are based on the demonstrably false assumption that all individuals who share one characteristic also share another one.

Let us frequently, therefore, take time out to remind ourselves that:

Jew1 is not Jew2

black person1 is not black person2

Communist1 is not Communist2

capitalist1 is not capitalist2

(Just to keep ourselves on our toes, though, we might also want to ponder the implications of the following T-shirt slogan: "When you've seen one atomic war, you've seen them all!" I believe, however, that this is not a case of stereotyping.)