Stereotypes, eh?

Posted 04.15.10

SHAWVILLE, QUEBEC | Because I'm as habitual a stereotyper as anyone -- jokes involving my Irish ancestors especially, plus other stereotypic inanities -- I can't shake my finger at anyone. But the extremes to which stereotypes are being pushed today merit our concern.

Aylmer, as it grows, is attracting more and more immigrants. So when Quebec City talks banning Muslim headgear in the public service, or France debates banning "all" religious paraphernalia, the subject also affects us here in the Pontiac.

Stereotypes exist because they carry some kernel of truth, but a truth that's amorphous and vague. "The Irish",; my example, covers radically different individuals -- but there may be a family of resemblances, I suppose, so that whereas all Irish won't have the same ruddy skin colour, we'll share connections in other areas. However I suspect these family resemblances are trivial and tiny.

The problem arises when these tiny resemblances are taken to indicate much larger and deeper similarities. It's easy to move from a corny joke to eventual serious accusations and hostilities.

The Nazis used an existing prejudice against "Jews" to vilify and then murder millions of human beings. There aren't many Nazis today, but the fact that this sleeper tool of theirs exists even in our free speech and charter rights society should make us take a double take on our stereotyping.

We all have neighbours who doggedly believe that strangers, foreigners, people of different races and cultures, are suspect. There are others, fewer unfortunately, who do not believe there is even such a thing as "race" at all. The Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis argued convincingly that races are social constructs, not real things, in his 2009 Massey Lectures.

For the people who believe in stereotypes -- who seem to want to believe in racism -- there is a very simple test for the accuracy of stereotyping. Think of yourself in relation to everyone else around you. Think of your personality, of your particular intelligence, your emotions and way of doing things. Do you know a single person who shares your personal makeup? I didn't think so.

Yet you are a member of some stereotype, aren't you? Do the things that make you a stereotype (skin colour, historical background) really mean as much as your personal, inner characteristics, the real you? And are you the only person with individual, unique inner qualities? Of course not, everyone has a completely distinctive inner life, and so how can there be any real stereotypes?

Stereotypes are much too simplistic.

People often identify themselves as members of a special group or race. They impose this simplistic concept on themselves. Yes, they may wear similar clothes (orthodox Muslim women or everyday teenagers), but they are kidding themselves if they think characteristics as trivial as clothing mean very much. Perhaps they are protecting themselves from a threatening bigger society, from the strangers around them -- the reverse xenophobia of minorities.

Stereotypes come from not-seeing: not seeing what makes each human unique, not seeing, also, the ten thousand things we share intimately with everyone else on this planet.

Copyright © 2010 Fred Ryan/Log Cabin Chronicles/04.10