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Are Stereotypes Bad?
Q: Are Stereotypes Bad?
That’s a really interesting question. I think the short answer is NO.
The development of more complex, inclusive and nuanced cognition — within ourselves and our societies — obviously requires that we learn habits of critique and become alert to the hidden assumptions built into our habits of communication and perception. Duh. Nonetheless, it is not wrong in principle to use cartoonish simplifications of mind.
Reductive caricatures are an ancient and normal form of human thought and speech that will continue to arise prominently on this planet for a long time to come. And it has an aspect of inherent offensiveness to it that is not necessarily problematic and is not going away any time soon. So those of us who wish help ourselves and each other to grow past the biases implicit in reductionist cliches must also develop a good conscience and charitable outlook toward the normal human use of painfully lame & dismissive cartoon-thinking.
Many of us, today, have been socially trained to attack & demonize stereotypes. We are, so to speak, racist against them. I don’t say that to minimize the ancient and contemporary horrors of inter-racial antagonism but, instead, to highlight the deep connection between the ethnocentric mentality, the use of stereotypes and the insidious way that this “socio-cognitive operating system” continues to play a prominent role even in many people who are ostensibly on the side of social justice and anti-racism.
This is is not about your official stance on values. This is about an evolved layer in the complexity of human bio-psychology which can operate within us regardless of our “good intentions” or “which side we are on.”
When I hear somebody start describing people using stereotypes, I almost always need to fight down my reaction to dismiss them AS an obnoxious stereotype. This system is ancient, deep, flares up easily and can take advantage of any topic — no matter how just or injust. It triggers me not just because it might express a “problematic” attitube but because there is a kind of implicit distress built into this layer of folk mentality.
I need to have a better relationship with the inherently offensive style of ethnocentric-level reasoning and self-expression. And you probably do too...
But where does it come from?
Cast thy mind back through the aeons of time to that long, strange moment when tribal cultures began to merge and convert into meta-tribal “nations” and “races” and “religions.” The birth of peoples. The invention of ethnicity.
Does it sound odd to hear such basic tools of identity described as inventions? It should. This was an uncanny phenomenon after so many thousands (or millions?) of years living in clans, bands and tribes.
Try to imagine how weird it must have been to have your regional totems subordinated to a broadly distributed identity-group bearing only the most superficial similarities to your local lineage. What do you have in common with people you’ve never met and to whom you are not immediately related?
This weird submission of the local into a broader ethnocentric identity happened in many ways in many places for a variety of reasons. Written language, grain storage, metallurgy, animal domestication, alliances of the shamans, the ambitions of individual conquerors, collective response to natural disasters, etc. It did not always go down the same way every time but, over time, it stabilized into a set of common features that promoted, exacerbated and naturalized a certain mode of cognition in human beings.
In this privileged mode, you are overtly or implicitly asked to identify with the simplified symbols of a great ethnic group and swear fealty to its history, destiny and power structure. Your local chiefs and matriarchs are subordinated to a distant, theatrical monarch (and the special families for whom the monarch works!). Your idiosyncratic local oral legends are dismissed or assimilated into the officially sanctioned tales of the One Book under the authority of the scribes. A single codified legal system spreads through a large resource zone that is administrated from the Great City. The population has two main options. People can migrate to the Great City and adopt the faddish customs of courtly speech (what we would now call political correctness — updated rules about which terms honor or dishonor people publically according to their heredity). Or people can live in small villages where they tend to the resources needs of the People, usually agriculture or fisheries, pay period tithes to the officials and stand ready to sacrifice their lives in battles against other large ethnic groups. The left-wing and right-wing options at the time.
This “new world order” is difficult.
We all feel a little bit of the terrorist’s terrible urgency when our local customs, authority and symbols are disrupted by distant administrative decrees. And all modern individuals know the deep exisential risk of putting aside your own dreams and emotions to serve an unintersting, fixed hereditary role. But it gets worse. The history of ethnic kingdoms is soaked in murder and enslavement both within and between “peoples.”
It somewhat correct to call this a eugenics project. The Hutus, Tutsis, Han, Celts and Spaniards were not pre-existing folk nations who simply flocked together to celebrate their innate, unchanging collective identity. Their commonality — a linguistically, customary, psychologically and visually self-similar super-group — was forged over long periods of time through much coercion and many hardships suffered by the inhabits of geographical regions subject to the self-organization practices of the ethnocentric system.
Ethnicities are the products of ethnocentric civilization.
Pain, Loyalty & Simplification
The cultivation practices that produce “a people” have to contend with a much larger diversity of human types and social operations than did the tribes. This means that you have a much higher chance of encountering or hearing about subgroups and subcultures of which you have no personal experience. And often you hear that they are not adequately conforming to the rules of the ethnic kingdom. So many agitated and simplified mental short-cuts naturally arise to cover your ignorance, remind you of dangers and make sense of an artificial, crowded environment.
People tell each other directly that “You are Roman” or “You are black” or “You are white” or “You are Chinese” or “You are a Muslim.” A practice of obediently agreeing to these categories is established through repetition, ordeal, argument and enforced gestures of obedience to the symbols of one or another nation.
The necessary cognitive simplifications for this social identity-environment become a set of memes that is used to organize individuals into loyalty-based hereditary roles wherein verbal, emotional and physical distress are used freely to corral the folk spirit into ongoing existence.
The infliction of distress around loyalty (to the simplified symbol-set) is widely distributed and takes many forms. It is not merely a matter of being burned as a heretic or whipped for talking back to your “official” superior. It also means your mother can passive-aggressively shame you into expressing emotional loyalty to her - -because she has the official role of Mother. It means you can get a beating at home for failing to tip your hat respectfully to the governor. You can be publically chastised for verbally honoring or dishonoring symbols associated with ethnicity, folk customs or inter-kingdom tensions.
The lameness of “dad jokes” (or the local vice-principal’s jokes or the painfully uninspiring attempts at wit found on local church signs) are features not bugs of this system.
Lameness is a low level ordeal to enforce and demonstrate loyalty.
The implicit pain required to convert human beings into sacrificial members of a folk community haunts all such communities as a quality of painful inflication (offensiveness). This distress, whether intense or mild, is oriented around the types of simplifications that arise adaptively under the economic, technological, identity and cognitive requirements of living as a “naturalized people.”
Old-fashioned patriotism is an interesting way to think about this stuff. And it runs the gamut from being willing to die for your flag to being willing to get sick trying to eat the biggest burger in the world which is your hometown’s claim to fame.
It is the perverse pleasure of attending family holiday dinners that you know will be lame and distressing. It is the sense of righteousness involved in wrecking your body at a job that serves a robber baron in order to show you are a “real man.” Granny gets to hug you even if you don’t like it — and everyone stands around and rejoices at this demonstration of symbolic loyalty.
Loyalty to symbols is gross. However it is not abnormal or necessarily unhealthy. It is a layer of the mind that has its limitations but you have not necessarily encountered a grievously dangerous social problem merely because you encountered gross, offensive simplifications.
So don’t be prejudiced against offensive, cartoonish thinking.
It has been with us for a long time and it’s not going away. While we are fighting to make the world more just, intelligent, secure, egalitarian & thriving place, we also have to realize that any “better world” contains these people — and these parts of ourselves.
Many customs can (and should) be challenged and changed but the customary thinkers, the vivid cartoonish categories applied to social groupings, the painful offensiveness & the dull suggestion that you should be willing to sacrificially demonstrate obedience to your meta-tribal identity group and its most famous roles and symbols? These things are not just going to “get fixed.”
We have to figure out how to work with them — not merely how to detect them and complain about them.