Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Menace of Stereotyping

A need to label, or resort to stereotyping seems to be part of human nature - must have something to do with the way our human brains are wired. Television and the internet have, inevitably, spread more and more examples of stereotyping to a much bigger slice of the population, to people who wouldn't, or couldn't, have thought them up for themselves. Yet TV and the internet also offer evidence, if sought, that stereotypes are nothing but misleading and potentially dangerous generalisations.

Generalisations are not always a bad thing. Wiki tells us: "A generalization (or generalisation) of a concept is an extension of the concept to less-specific criteria. It is a foundational element of logic and human reasoning..." It's easy to forget, though, that a generalisation is just that, and, human nature being what it is, a generalisation often contains, or gathers in the re-telling, embedded exaggeration.

An article carried in the UK's Daily Telegraph some years ago raised my hackles at the time sufficiently to post a wee rant. Helen Kirwan-Taylor's We're Having a Special Relationship discussed Anglo-American marriages.

I have personal experience of one of these, but the way the article portrays the situation is nowhere near reality for me, nor, I guess for the majority of people in Anglo-American marriages. The piece was filled with class-ridden, pretentious stereotypical nonsense. But then, I don't live in New York, and have never lived in London, both cities figured prominently in the article. Some Americans, and Britons, need to be reminded that New York is not America, and London is not Britain. The writer needed enlightening that hardly any US Americans or Britons fit patterns described.

The article, in common with many, leans heavily on stereotyping for quick, easy thumbnail sketches of people or situations: it's nothing but lazy journalistic shorthand. A tiny grain of truth may be present, but smothered beneath misconceptions, exaggerations and generalities. Using stereotypes saves the writer extra words and extra effort. This kind of shorthand stereotyping encourages readers and listeners to form opinions which can eventually develop into prejudice, then lead to discrimination and worse: dangerous, unless we remain aware of exactly what is going on.

In astrology proper, archetypes replace stereotypes. The existence of archetypes imprinted within the human psyche was proposed first by Carl Jung. There's a set of short pieces about Carl Jung's theories written in layman's language, by the Zodiac Master.

In everyday astrology the danger of stereotyping clearly exists. Referring to someone as "a Libra" or "a Leo" etc. is misleading, and saddles that person with a stereotype, which could be quite unwarranted. I've found it preferable to describe someone (if someone needs to be described/labelled in a couple of words) as "a Libra-type" or "a Leo-type", but even that is stereotyping. Once past the Sun sign stage of astrology it's practically impossible to indulge in any kind of shorthand - each person is unique. I think this is why I continue to cringe each time I read a "a Virgo" or "an Aquarian" etc.

The difference between archetypes and stereotypes is vast. I tend to think of a family tree image to clarify the differences : an archetype is placed in the topmost position; related icons through the ages on the branches immediately beneath; below them come a variety of stereotypes; lower still are the jokes, prejudices and bigotry encountered, thanks to stereotyping. Archetypes represent the original, perfect example of any given aspect of human experience - the pattern, the template, recognisable to all humans. The stereotype represents an opinion, often an over-simplification or caricature emphasising particular factors which support whatever prejudice the writer or speaker upholds.

I recall once reading an observation that: "An archetype is Marilyn Monroe, a stereotype is the dumb blonde." But to be accurate, Marilyn Monroe isn't the archetype, she is the icon of an archetype, an icon belonging to 20th century and beyond. Earlier icons: Cleopatra or Helen of Troy ? The textbook label of the archetype these women represented was, I think, "The Temptress". The "dumb blonde" stereotype (played up by Marilyn for the cameras) has fuelled countless jokes about blonde-haired women, fairly harmless, I guess - unless you happened to be a golden-haired beauty with a science (or any other) PhD.

From French philosopher Jacques Ellul:
“(Propaganda) proceeds by psychological manipulations, character modifications, by creation of stereotypes useful when the time comes - The two great routes that this sub-propaganda takes are the conditioned reflex and the myth”
and from former US Representative Tim Holden:
The Holocaust illustrates the consequences of prejudice, racism and stereotyping on a society. It forces us to examine the responsibilities of citizenship and confront the powerful ramifications of indifference and inaction.


Wisewebwoman said...

I would gently suggest that any joke using as its base contempt or othering of an entire category of people ('dumb blondes') is not harmless.
I am the mother of a natural blonde female mathematician who has had endless suffering as a result of such 'harmlessness'.
and only recently do we have to look at the unbelieveable rape jokes and their defenders in the US.

Twilight said...

Wisewebwoman ~~ Sorry WWW, if that came over in a way unintended. I should maybe have written something along the lines: "comparatively harmless when considered against other prejudices" - because, really, blonde jokes are not in the same league as the kind of stereotyping which spawns prejudices, discrimination and bigotry that can have disastrous consequences - as evidenced in last quotation in this post.

Rape jokes are in a different category again, as is much modern so-called humour. Sexism, ageism and all-round gross nastiness are thought by some to by funny - not by me.

Anonymous said...

My father was my original astrology teacher. He is wonderfully talented, but I have noticed that as he ages, he falls into the lazy habit of deciding he knows how someone IS, because he has seen their chart. This, even if the person is standing right in front of him, saying "no, I'm not like that". My duaghter ( his granddaughter) feels alienated, when he announces that, because of her Pisces Sun and Pisces Mercury, that she is mystical and immaginative. Actually, she is a very reality based, scientifically minded, atheist librarian. He is SO attached to his world-view, and the easy way it lets him understand (stereotype) people, that he prefers his "map" to the real people in his life. SAD.

Twilight said...

Anonymous ~~ It is sad, Anon., I agree. Perhaps your father has been immersed in astrology for too long and needs to "come up for air". Perhaps all of us who are keen on the old art/science/doctrine of astrology should do that too, regularly!

In astrology's defence, I dare say an argument could be made about your daughter's characteristics. They could reflect her natal Moon's position or her rising sign, or some other aspect. What you describe relates more to a Saturn-type personality Capricorn or Aquarius by sign, but not necessarily Sun sign.

I try to remain cautious, even though I love astrology and believe very sincerely that at its core there is something valid. There's a lot of "moss" that has gathered on astrology over many centuries with astrologers and mystics doing their best to unravel a mystery with the tools available. It's hard to know which is the moss and which is the rolling stone of astrology at times.

R J Adams said...

I hadn't read that god-awful article by Helen Kirwan-Taylor. I needed a break halfway through just to allow my stomach to settle. Stereotypical from paragraph one! And so 'upper crust' in her manner. Obviously, she's been hobnobbing with the Oxford set.
My wife is, thankfully, the total opposite of all this woman insists is appealing in a US wife. I'm thankful every day she is most definitely NOT the stereotypical American female.

Twilight said...

RJ Adams ~~ I felt the same on reading that silly piece. The very notion that Americans (or rather people of the USA) are capable of being stereotyped is daft for a start.

The country is so vast and diverse.....not to mention very young - as countries go. Bad as national stereotypes are, to have a chance of containing any minute grain of truth they'd need to have many centuries of "ripening" time, even then they'd likely be cockeyed.....take the English stereotype which relates to a country smaller than Wisconsin, for example. ;-)

JD said...

stereotyping = using both hands?
sadly I am a monotypist of the single digit variety.

sorry :)

Twilight said...

JD ~~~ Sorry? Groan -so you should be - you deserve stereo punishment; let's see.... gentle slap on both wrists?