Stereotypes – our best friends, our worst enemies


In the panic for security now gripping the USA as well as other nations, typing and profiling others has become as commonplace as it is noxious. 

Stereotypes are both our best friends and our worst enemies. Stereotypes could be compared to the active library of your inner iTunes playing one track after another. This applies to everything you are experiencing in life, though we tend to think of stereotypes as automatic, knee-jerk judgments about people when we use the word. For example, I see heavy black clouds and my stereotype says “rain” and I go for my umbrella or raincoat before leaving the house. Or I see a group of rowdy looking teenagers on the sidewalk coming my way and I am prompted to cross the street.

Generalizations (statistically probable data) about a culture (a group of people who develop ideas and approaches to life or a part of life in common) can give us a high probability that many people in that group will act, think, speak or behave in a certain way—but there is no certainty that the person before me who belongs to this group will do so.  

Stereotypes” is the common word for these functional generalizations. They are anchors for our thinking, one of our necessary mental processes. We have an immediate interpretive reaction for everything we see, hear or experience (at least those things for which biology and culture have trained our senses to register rather than ignore). New data is interpreted by what we have learned or previously experienced individually or collectively and provides the temptation to confirm what we believe we already know.  

When a stereotype pops up, what we do next, however, is critical. WE TRY TO CHECK THE REALITY AGAINST THE STEREOTYPE (this, by the way, can refine the stereotype for its next use). We explore alternative interpretations, possibilities; use other stereotypes to question the ones that have arisen. We say of the dark clouds, “Maybe it will pass over.”

But we have our rain gear ready in case it pours down cats and dogs, needles, sheets, comme vache qui pisse, or whatever your cultural uses as a metaphor for the deluge.

  

Stereotypes are the necessary mental/emotional chatter that we constantly are engaged in during our waking hours at least. If you don’t believe me, just pause for a moment to be aware of the THINGS YOU HAVE SAID TO YOURSELF OR INTERNALLY PRESENTED TO YOUR SELF (images, sounds, memories, judgments. Have you heard yourself say “yesssssssss!” or “BS!”, etc., etc.?) about the couple of paragraphs you have just read, and, perhaps about their author (I don’t wanna’ know).  

Whether you choose to share it or not, you have an opinion about everything; it’s always there if you care to listen in. Cognitive scientists, those people who study how the mind works, tell us that in listening to someone else, we are talking to ourselves about eight times as fast as they are talking to us to figure out what is being said and how to interpret it.  

 

This, by the way, is how listening works. Good listening is selecting the right chatter track to run; it is not reacting at all. The faster and more accurately we can unconsciously talk to ourselves about what is going on around us, its possibilities, its consequences, possible options, before we invest in one interpretation or another, the better we listen.

Stereotypes are unitary elements in our listening, parts of the running internal (cultural) interpretative dialogue that keeps us from having to figure life out at every second, which we are ever trying to do at the unconscious (thank God!) level. Well-functioning mental wetware is forever challenging each bit of information it receives to find out if it is: 

  • true or false, right or wrong?
  • good or bad (safe or dangerous)?
  • ugly or beautiful (how the stereotypes on this one change from culture to culture) and
  • one or many? (Is this strange arrangement of sticks a strange pile of firewood or a “chair”?)

We are talking this out internally all the time, before, during, and after taking decisions and acting. 

 

Stereotypes are our friends. As long as we treat them like good friends, sit with them, ask them questions, and try to find out what they mean when they say something, and hold their hands when it is pretty clear that we haven’t sorted something out yet. 

This process can also seem an enemy, because we sometimes need to be alone, give it a rest, veg out, change the mental track that is playing by doing something different, singing, meditating, seeing a movie, making love. Playing the same track over and over and over and over leads to deadly certainty, inflexible fundamentalism. It is a merciless 4/4 marching beat that promises and sometimes goose-steps its way to power and glory and ultimately leads to cultural implosion and oblivion. Gross stereotypes about others (ethnic, racial, gender, age, etc.) can become self -reinforcing systems, usually maintained in society for someone’s benefit and to someone’s loss. If we cannot change people’s minds we change the laws when these become too ominous.  

This dynamic is why diversity is not just a fact, but a necessity for survival, and why making a monoculture out of our internal or external ecosystem, making a one-party system or a dictatorship of a government leads to great fortunes, empires and death, the death of a culture and usually the deaths of many of its people and of those around them. Eliminate diversity and you win big…for a while.

Cultivate diversity, expand inclusion and we can all win bigger, if only it were not for the diversity of those who want to eliminate diversity… In dealing with life and especially in dealing with culture, we need to continually cultivate what Zen calls “beginners mind” and management consultants call “thinking out of the box.” We need a constant process of questioning the presumptions/stereotypes by which we necessarily operate on a day to day basis to discover and benefit from more possibilities. 

Why? Because some tracks like to take over and drown out the others. We empower them because we feel they will serve or save us. Sometimes people want their track to dominate our selection of the mental tracks that we listen to on our mental iPod (dogma). Some people are professionals at this (or employ professionals) to ensure that we accept and hum their tune, e.g., advertisers, politicians, anybody with a stake in something that in enhanced by our compliance. They repeat things over and over until they are embedded in our operating systems.  

 

This is never more true than when we are stressed, fearful or panicked. Old generalizations become certainties in our minds and get acted out in our behavior toward each other. They get sink their roots deeper and deeper and their fruit is harder and harder to resist. They may turn into thousand-year-old hatreds. Animosities many of us found inexplicable in the Balkans some years back — “Why can’t these people get along?” – we are now similarly acting out with much of the Islamic world, a much larger "Balkans".

If anyone thought that the recent US election was going to be decided by the issues, not a chance! Rather, there was a great effort made to embed the “right” stereotypes in voters’ minds, by making appeals and connections to certain stereotypes they already have running. What Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl knew intuitively when they built Hitler’s propaganda machine, neuroscientific research offers today to all who will learn – and advertisers and political parties have learned. They know where the money and the power are at.

 

Yup, forget the issues. We don’t have time for them. Go for sound bites, memes, those contagious ideas, all competing for a share of our mind in a kind of Darwinian selection. If we can successfully stereotype the opposition, we can win.

 

We are told that most of the undecided voters were not trying to resolve their indecision by studying the candidates and the issues, but saying that they will make up their mind on “how they feel about the candidates” on election day. They are taking their cues from entertainment media that appeal to them. If this is so, is it the end of democracy when those who don’t know and don’t want to know will decide for us which way things go?

 

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