The Trouble with Stereotypes

So I posted a couple of blogs last week that created quite an interesting response.  I did ponder whether the second was necessary, especially after a friend of mine from back home told me he thought it wasn't (and he is quite a thoughtful chap).  I think, however, it was a bit of a success.  If I do regret anything, it is possbly replying to every single comment sent to me on the topic, both on my blog and on facebook, when most of the questions were just re-hashings of the same arguments that I put down in the post where I challenged people on the accusations they made.  I think this might have made me seem a bit confrontational, defensive, and arrogant (this however, always seems to be the accusation leveled at people who enjoy debating).  At the time of writing, no one has attempted to take me up on the challenge yet.

I'm sticking with the subject for a while longer because I have found it all so interesting.  I think what I will take out of the whole discussion is just how murky this world of stereotyping actually is.  Categorising something as a "stereotype" seems to be surprisingly easy and amazingly damning to its credibility in explaining anything.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that if any observation of groups of people does make its way into the category of a stereotype, it appears as though it is completely off the table for discussion for many people.

You see, we have this word "stereotype" and it covers an incredible range of opinions; some have quite a bit of truth to them, some have a little truth to them, some have no truth to them, and some are actually oppositely true.  Also, they can range from viciously insulting to amusing, or just plain benign.

Here is the definition of the word stereotype from the Oxford English Dictionary website, with an example:

"a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing,  the stereotype of the woman as the carer."
(I had originally wrote "i.e." after the first sentence but a commenter pointed out that this was not exactly correct and while I think it makes no real difference, I acknowledge it wasn't perfectly accurate.  No dishonesty was meant on my part)

Actually the example here is a good one, as most people would surely acknowledge that women to tend to play more of a caring role in society than men and are usually the main carers of children.  I guess the problem comes when we always apply this to the individuals we meet and this is where the "fixed" and "oversimplified" parts of the definition not only cause offence, but also hint at the unreliability of judging individuals you don't know by using a broad generalisation of others that share similar characteristics.

I have to admit to having a little bit of confusion as to what constitutes a stereotypical statement, which of the following would be a stereotype?

Asian men are shorter than White men.
All Asian men are shorter than White men.
Asian men tend to be shorter than White men.

In my view, at least, the top two are stereotypes and perhaps the bottom one is an observation based on a widely held belief (a stereotype) that happens to be true.  The bottom statement seems not to be fixed or oversimplified because within it is implied many exceptions to the rule.  However, I think what happens in conversation and writing quite often is that the first statement is said, when the person actually means the third and that usually this is an innocent mistake.  It is an error I am extremely guarded against making when I write this blog because I know that the consequence of making such a mistake means that a whole bunch of people will abuse me and then misconstrue the whole piece of writing as a result.  As I have discovered, that tends to happen anyway.  This makes me think - that in discussion at least - it has become a bit of an annoying and slightly dishonest debating tactic to turn other's attention to use of stereotypes to discredit the writer or speaker, instead of addressing the argument.  The really big problem is that it usually works.

When it comes to applying stereotypes in the real world with real people, I have written many times about the frustration I have felt and the general ignorance of people I have met who have applied stereotypes to my wife and I, when they see us.  Here is one example from Asiapundits.  This is why I was pretty confident that, when I was criticised for using stereotypes (or using arguments with a connection to stereotypes at least) in my post and told I should reflect on other's point of view, that I had already been there and experienced the burn of it many times.  I didn't need to reflect on their point of view because I already had there point of view.

I actually think there is no harm in using a widely held view about groups of people to explain a group's behaviour sometimes, where it is relevant.  As long as it is not fixed and oversimplified for individuals, not expressed as facts about individuals, and it is not used to mistreat or discriminate against individuals.

There are a few misconceptions about the use of stereotypes - or observations that match a stereotype - that I think many people share:

Misconception #1 - When someone states a stereotyped observation about a particular group of people, this means they think EVERY individual in that group shares the characteristic they have observed.

Misconception #2 - That for a "stereotyped" view to hold some truth, a majority of people within a group should fit to that view.

Misconception #3 - That stating a view that adheres to a known stereotype involves insulting people.

Misconception #4 - That all stereotypes are equally bad.

Misconception #5 - That only bigots and racists are tempted into stereotypical thought processes.

Misconception #6 - That stereotypes will go away as long as we don't talk about them or use them for any explanatory purposes.

Misconception #7 - That it is not OK to make light of stereotypes.

Misconception #8 - That those who are within a group vulnerable to being stereotyped need all of our special protection.

Misconception #9 - That generalising (which many consider to be stereotyping) is not valid or useful.

Let me explain some of these with some examples:

#1 - The perfect example for this is would be the widely held view that Asian men don't tend to be as tall or big as White men.  The evidence is there to back up this view, but equally important is that it is fairly obvious that anyone who says this can't possibly hold the opinion that all Asians are short.  It is impossible for anyone with a pair of eyes.  I see a dozen Korean guys a day who are taller and bigger than me.

#2 - For this one, a great example is Muslims and terrorism.  I looked into this and discovered articles, like this one, stating figures in the US, which seemed to contradict the observation (connected to the stereotype that Muslims are terrorists) that Muslims are more likely to support and commit terrorism and websites like this one, which seemed to suggest that Muslims were far more likely to be involved in terrorism than any other group (there are always more stats on the US than anywhere else).  Both, in my eyes seemed to contradict one another, so I discarded them as being rather bias viewpoints, one from the far-left and one from the far-right.  The first did make me think though, could the world really be so wrong about Islam's connection to terrorism?  I did wonder on one thing though, just what defined a terrorist incident and what about the seriousness of them?  With this in mind I looked for a list of terrorist incidents by number of deaths, and this is what I found.  To say this is shocking would be an understatement.  It seems that acts of terrorism are committed by all sorts of people, but the biggest and most lethal ones (the ones which most people associate with terrorist acts) are usually committed by people who happen to be Muslims and under the ideology of Islamism.

Note: Again the definition of terrorism can also be argued by the other side here.  A Pakistani Muslim might well argue that US drone strikes constitute terrorism, and they might have a point.  This would be a crime committed by government, however, and not by citizens and doesn't really disprove the conclusion based on the stereotype.

Even with this list in mind, one must acknowledge that it is only the tiniest percentage of people who profess to be Muslim who are actually terrorists, perhaps not even 0.00001%.  However, this minute figure doesn't matter when we ask the question, "Which group of people with a shared faith or ideology are most likely to commit a deadly terrorist act?"  Despite the tiny numbers, you would have to say those that believe in Islam, so the observation that has the connection to the stereotype is not without some truth to it.  What the numbers do show is how mind-blowingly stupid you would have to be to approach a Muslim on the street and believe they could be a terrorist, let alone shout at them accusing them of being one, or worse.  You would probably be 99.99999% likely to be entirely wrong, not good odds.  If you were to judge them as a possible terrorist, you would be an ignoramus.

#3 - To me this is one of the most bizarre of all.  It simply doesn't compute in my head to be upset with someone who holds a view based on a stereotype.  As long as they can admit of exceptions and not treat anyone differently as a result of their thinking, I can't see how this is a problem.  For example, there is a big difference between how I would perceive the following questions about my wife:

"What's your wife doing today, cooking?"

"I've heard that Asian women always spend their days cooking for their husbands, is that true for your wife?"

 Let me first say that I did receive comment one a few times in England (and a few times more if you swap "cooking" for "cleaning").  To me, the first always sounds a little snidy and like a bit of a dig (especially if I could express the tone of voice used).  The second one is still in a style that many might find offensive, and I guess it might depend on the tone of voice also, but it shouldn't be really.  There is nothing wrong with being ignorant as long as you have an open mind and are willing to be educated and I think this kind of question admits to curiosity and scepticism of the widely held view, and most importantly a recognition of the fact that my wife may well be different from the stereotype.

#4 - I have noticed that people tend to categorise all stereotypes together in a bit of an ill disciplined manner, and a kind of ironic, "if you believe in one, you would believe in them all" statement is often the result.  Believing Black people are criminals is not the same as believing White people are slow runners, for example.  If one truly believes the first and applies it to the Black people they meet, they are people who you should worry about significantly more than people who believe the second about White people.  Believing in one also doesn't constitute believing in the other.

#5 - I have had a few occasions where people have commented on my writing and either implied or simply stated that they think I am a racist or a bigot for taking a generalisation and using it to explain certain behaviours of groups, usually Koreans, but also of Westerners too.  What has always given me a good laugh is that at the same time some of these people are accusing me of over-generalising, they often throw in a comment like this:

"I have known people like you before, you are all the same"

 Here is a classic from my "Challenge" post:

"here, foremost:

"I am married into a Korean family ..."

so what.

i've met a lot of guys like you who throw this out first. it doesn't matter, but you think it does and want everyone to think it does, but it doesn't.

this attitude distorts your worldview, how you perceive yourself, your marriage, and quite possibly your wife."

This makes me inclined to think we all do this to some extent and that we have to be very guarded against it.  It seems we are all natural stereotypers as humans, indeed most animals are pattern seekers.  We make lots of mistakes of course, when searching for patterns, which is why these things need to be examined further.

Once again, you can think something about a group of people, but it shouldn't really inform your actions or your words on a particular individual within that group, much better to have a chat with them and see what they think.

#6 - The other day I noticed a post about about conservatives fearing being called racist (in the US) and so not feeling able to air their opinions and in their frustration simply tuning-in to the most radical conservative radio and TV shows (which tend to be more popular than liberal ones), understanding their point of view and becoming more radically right-wing themselves as a result. I can really imagine this is true and I think this is a sad state of affairs and although I admittedly know little about the US, I do follow its politics quite closely and what I do see is a growing polarisation of the voting public and this could be part of the reason for it. 

It seems to me that silencing any views that could be deemed racist, culturalist, or stereotypical does not have the desired effect of taking away the impulse in people.  In fact, the logic tells me that their views will go unchallenged and allowed to fester and grow into something worse.

#7 - I have always thought of humour as a key ingredient to getting along with anyone and I think this also applies between groups.  When we can make fun of and laugh at each other, without worrying too much about offending each other, this is often a show of acceptance, respect, and generally liking someone and being friendly.  In fact, jokes at other's expense are often a test and an invitation to join the group and to test the water as to whether we can trust the other person, especially in men.

It is common, for example, in sports teams for new members to undergo an "initiation ceremony", which is usually a practical joke at their expense.  I can remember quite a few practical jokes from my cricket team members back in England, but I heard of some truly awful initiations for rugby teams.  It is done because it is a tried and trusted way of breaking the ice and forming a bond.  A problem I see is that it has become truly taboo to even come close to doing this between races or cultures.  We all have to show we are "respecting" each other by being hyper-sensitive about almost every issue.  This hyper-sensitivity is rampant in Western discourse at the moment.  Many people seem to jump to being offended and then can't really figure-out why they are, they just are and that is enough.

If we take another observation about many Far East Asian countries (that might be deemed stereotypical), they do seem to dislike each other a little more than Western countries dislike each other.  It has always intrigued me how little good humour there is between Korea and Japan, for example.  If we take an example of a good relationship between countries, you might use the UK and the US, where very little genuine animosity exists between its citizens and where jokes about each other's culture fly about left, right, and centre and generally taken in good heart.  The current relationship between many Islamic majority countries and the West is a good example of a bad relationship and this is characterised by an almost complete inability for one side to be able to see the funny side of anything when it relates to their culture or beliefs.

With all this in mind then, I might be inclined to suggest that making fun of the groups each of us tend to naturally fit into - by birth or whatever other reason - might actually be extremely beneficial.  Many historical reasons might make this all the more complicated, but at least in principle it appears a sound idea.  As always, however, one must take care with individuals not to embarrass or single them out too much.  Judging the reaction to a good joke has always been a bit of an art form to avoid the potential to upset people too much.

#8 - Over the past year or so, I have noticed a bit of a pattern emerging on my site - and other places where this blog gets a show or where I write - that it is almost always Westerners that become most offended by what I write.  If I write something criticising Korean culture, Westerners will jump to Korea's defense and be offended on their behalf.  It is very noble, but I do see a problem with this. 

The Western voice often becomes so loud that it drowns out the voice of those actually affected by a stereotype or prejudice.  This has the effect of keeping them down, it posits them as vulnerable, weak and in need of our superior position's protection (in fact the Westerner showing offence often assumes this superiority).  In the case of the races, when White people over-defend people of different race and culture, it actually hints at disrespect rather than respect.  They can't take a joke like us, they are not as strong as us, they need help not like us, they are not as culturally evolved as us, so give them a break. 

Obviously, the vulnerable among us do need protection.  I am not sure about whether my theory here would work for minorities in Western countries (but I think protections and extra vigilance from criminal acts might be enough), but what I am fairly sure about is that in Korea, for instance, Koreans don't need Westerners standing up for them and that they are more than capable of defending themselves if they need to.  I have always respected Korean people enough to think them able to take any criticism I have of their culture and to not be so proud that they couldn't accept a knock or two and possibly work to change the behaviour of society or at least go against it. 

#9 - As I have already stated, many people get upset with any generalisation of groups of people and consider it stereotyping and therefore will say it is invalid and also not useful.  In reality, as I have also already mentioned, everyone tends to stereotype, or at least generalise, because pattern seeking behaviour helps us handle and organise the mountain of information we receive on a daily, hourly, minute, and even second to second basis.  Sometimes we will commit errors by doing this, but many times the results will help us interact with people and the world, which may help us avoid catastrophic mistakes. 

I am passionate about the value of scientific inquiry and the scientific method has come about to help us confirm or deny the patterns we see around us, but to get started one must posit a theory first and this involves speculation and asking many questions about what is going on in order to form a hypothesis to be tested.  This is how we find out what is true.  If it is wrong to speculate and wrong to ask certain questions, we will never discover the truth and, if I had to choose, I would take the truth over reducing offence by avoiding honest speculation any day.


Re: The Trouble with Stereotypes

wow!  that was a mouthful indeed!  damn... i had to take a pizza break to read all this... anyway,

yeah, this is the deal with stereotypes.  sure. it can be beneficial and/or, it can be derogatory, demeaning, embarrassing, or hurtful.  this is the nature of our human race to ease onto what is too convenient and too laxing in our it through amusements or just careless or clueless inconsiderations....

well... in reference to this:

"Asian men are shorter than White men.
All Asian men are shorter than White men.
Asian men tend to be shorter than White men."

majority would come to terms with the "obvious statement" in reference to gross typical stereotypes or generalizations.....unless one was living in austrlian outback for 100 years.... or, should i tell the postman to knock 3 on monday, 2 on tuesday, and 1 on wednesday .....heehee hee...  ^.^

as for this scientific method? ..... being honest and being a seeker of truth is very noble indeed......but, on rare occasions, one must remember that getting to the bottom of the truth will be one's downfall as well...

so, did you reaffirm your confirmations regarding this matter?  or, do you still need satisfactory bombardments of additional jollies?  



Re: The Trouble with Stereotypes

Always open to a disagreement or two, but I have had my fill of answering the critics lately.  Guess it is my own fault.

Sorry it was so long by the way, will be back to a more readable length next week, hopefully.

Thanks for commenting.

Re: The Trouble with Stereotypes

Cheers, kinda enjoy all the debating, besides.  This is the last post on these subjects for a while, though.