The Merits of Stereotypes

by Sam Vaknin

4 December 2002


“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 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 Hollywood 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 also portrayed as unrealistically “good”.

But alcoholism among Native Americans, especially those crammed into reservations, is, indeed, more prevalent than among the general population. The “drunken Indian” stereotype conveys true and useful information about inebriation among Native Americans. Could other descriptors applied to them be equally accurate?

It is hard to unambiguously define, let alone quantify, traits in a group of people. At which point does self-centerdness become egotism, or the pursuit of self-interest become 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 really possess lower IQ’s (in the statistical sense) and, if so, is this deficiency hereditary?” has landed many an academic beyond the pale. It is an absolutely, legitimate, scientific question — regardless of who poses it. As is the question: “Is homosexuality a genetic anomaly?” (an anomaly in the statistical sense) is a legitimate, scientific question regardless of who poses it. So is the question: “Are Jews over-represented in certain professions” (over-represented in the statistical sense). To refrain from studying certain issues scientifically just because they are likely to offend a minority is censorship, a pernicious phenomenon, dangerous to free speech, science, and progress.

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”, published in the April 2001 issue of Education Digest, Carlos Cortes suggest three differences between “group generalizations” and “stereotypes”:

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 reported the findings of a survey of 1,000 girls in grades three to 12 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 the boys. A small majority of the girls felt that “people think we are only interested in love and romance”.

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 has 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. 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.

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.

Discrimination prevails against races, genders, religions, people with alternative lifestyles or sexual preferences, ethnic groups, the poor, the rich, professionals, and any other conceivable minority. It has little to do with stereotypes and a lot to do with societal and economic power matrices. Granted, most racists typecast blacks and Native Americans, Jews and Latinos. But typecasting in itself does not amount to racism, nor does it inevitably lead to discriminatory conduct.

In a multi-annual study titled “Economic Insecurity, Prejudicial Stereotypes, and Public Opinion on Immigration Policy”, published by the Political Science Quarterly, the authors Peter Burns and James Gimpel substantiated the hypothesis that “economic self-interest and symbolic prejudice have often been treated as rival explanations for attitudes on a wide variety of issues, but it is plausible that they are complementary on an issue such as immigration. This would be the case if prejudice were caused, at least partly, by economic insecurity.”

A long list of scholarly papers demonstrate how racism — especially among the dispossessed, dislocated, and low-skilled — surges during times of economic hardship or social transition. Often there is a confluence of long-established racial and ethnic stereotypes with a growing sense of economic insecurity and social dislocation.

“Social Identity Theory” tells us that stereotypical prejudice is a form of compensatory narcissism. The acts of berating, demeaning, denigrating, and debasing others serve to enhance the perpetrators’ self-esteem and regulate their labile sense of self-worth. It is vicarious “pride by proxy”; belonging to an “elite” group bestows superiority on all its members. Not surprisingly, education has some positive influence on racist attitudes and political ideology.

Having been entangled — sometimes unjustly — with bigotry and intolerance, the merits of stereotypes have often been overlooked. In an age of information overload, “nutshell” stereotypes encapsulate information compactly and efficiently and thus possess an undeniable survival value. Admittedly, many stereotypes are self-reinforcing, self-fulfilling prophecies. A young black man confronted by a white supremacist may well respond violently and an Hispanic, unable to find a job, may end up in a street gang.

But this recursiveness does not detract from the usefulness of stereotypes as “reality tests” and serviceable prognosticators. Blacks do commit crimes over and above their proportion in the general population. Though stereotypical in the extreme, it is a useful fact to know and act upon. Hence, racial profiling.

Stereotypes, like fables, are often constructed around middle class morality and are prescriptive. They split the world into the irredeemably bad — “the other”, blacks, Jews, Hispanics, women, gay — and the flawlessly good, “we”, the purveyors of the stereotype. While expressly unrealistic, the stereotype teaches “what not to be” and “how not to behave”. A by-product of this primitive rendition is segregation.

A large body of scholarship shows that proximity and familiarity actually polarize rather than ameliorate inter-ethnic and inter-racial tensions. Stereotypes minimize friction and violence by keeping minorities and the majority apart. Venting and vaunting substitute for vandalizing and worse. In time, as erstwhile minorities are gradually assimilated and new ones emerge, conflict is averted.

Moreover, though they frequently reflect underlying deleterious emotions, such as rage or envy, not all stereotypes are negative. Blacks are supposed to have superior musical and athletic skills. Jews are thought to be brainier in science and shrewder in business. Hispanics uphold family values and ethnic cohesion. Gays are sensitive and compassionate. And negative stereotypes are attached even to positive social roles: athletes are dumb and violent, soldiers inflexible and programmed.

Stereotypes are selective filters. Supporting data is hoarded and information to the contrary is ignored. One way to shape stereotypes into effective coping strategies is to bombard their devotees with “exceptions”, contexts, and alternative reasoning. Blacks are good athletes because sports is one of the few egalitarian career paths open to them. Jews, historically excluded from all professions, crowded into science and business and specialized. If gays are indeed more sensitive or caring than the average perhaps it is because they have been repressed and persecuted for so long. Athletes are not prone to violence, violent athletes simply end up on TV more often. And soldiers have to act reflexively to survive in battle.

There is nothing wrong with stereotypes if they are embedded in reality and promote the understanding of social and historical processes. Western, multi-ethnic, pluralistic civilization celebrates diversity and the uniqueness and distinctiveness of its components. Stereotypes merely acknowledge this variety.

USA Today reported in January a survey of 800 adults, conducted last year by social psychology professors Amanda Diekman of Purdue University and Alice Eagly of Northwestern University. They found that far from being rigid and biased, stereotypes regarding the personality traits of men and women have changed dramatically to accurately reflect evolving gender roles. Diekman noted that “women are perceived as having become much more assertive, independent, and competitive over the years ... Our respondents — whether they were old enough to have witnessed it or not — recognized the role change that occurred when women began working outside the home in large numbers and the necessity of adopting characteristics that equip them to be breadwinners.”


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