Cretians are always liars, evil beasts, slow bellies
One of the few benefits of living in an era of insanity is that it makes the peddlers of the most prosaic and obvious truths appear like sages. The banality I will defend here is that almost every stereotype you have ever heard is true.
The Irish have fiery tempers, the Scottish are cheap, Germans are arrogant, Englishmen are cold, Jews are cunning. You can add dozens of more to this list. While most stereotypes appear to be unflattering to those they are applied to, make only a slight modification in tone and the “victims” will most likely heartily embrace them. The Irish are not fiery but passionate, the Scottish are frugal not cheap, the Germans are proud not arrogant, the Englishman is reserved not cold, and the Jew is not cunning but a good businessman. What at first appears as a slur can easily be turned into a commendation. What is important for our purposes is that depending upon how they are articulated, almost all will recognize their truth.
Even Scripture is not above stereotyping. The quotation at the beginning of this post is, of course, Paul’s. Paul sanctions other stereotypes as well. Widows tend to be gossips and Jews are prone to tell fables. Luke tells us that Athenians are consumed with the latest intellectual fads, Stephen says the Hebrews are stiff-necked. Our Lord even referred to Canaanites as dogs. (Yes, I realize there is more to this one than mere stereotyping, but there is certainly not less.) This is just the New Testament.
The reason that stereotypes are, on the whole, true is easy to see. They are formed through the collective experience of a group of people. My tribe’s experience of that other tribe has found that they behave in such and such a manner under such and such conditions. To reject stereotypes is thus to reject the wisdom of our fathers. This does not mean are fathers were infallible, but we should be careful not to throw their wisdom to the wind without a good deal of contrary evidence.
Far from there being anything wrong with stereotypes, they are helpful, even necessary heuristics that help us organize the complex world we inhabit. Without them we would be blind and severely hindered.
At one level, everyone believes this. We all rely upon stereotypes for the simple reason that they have proved true time and time again. But most are afraid to admit this publicly and many are afraid to admit it even to themselves. Though much of this duplicity is due to the indoctrination we have all received from school and media propaganda, there are a few seemingly legitimate reasons why we tend to shy away from acknowledging our stereotypes.
Like almost every generalization, stereotyping has its dangers. Most of these are easily avoided, but a few cautions are still in order.
The most obvious pitfall that stereotyping opens before us is the temptation to commit sweeping generalizations. Just because some trait is typical of a certain type of person (race, religion, gender, age), it does not follow that each individual who belongs to the type has the trait. Men are better drivers than women, but this does not mean there are no exceptions. It may very well be that Mrs. Jones can handle the Suburban better than Mr. Jones.
Take an example from my own experience. I once saw a young Negro dressed gangsta style strutting towards me on the street. The stereotype we have of such a person is that he is rude and probably a thug. I prepared for the worst. To my surprise he behaved politely, even friendly. Though at first I viewed him as a potential threat, I was instantly able to modify my view of him. Only an ass would fail to do otherwise. Did I call my stereotype into question? Not at all. While not everybody who dresses the part acts the part, enough do.
The second pitfall is to allow stereotypes to engender hatred. This danger has been grossly exaggerated in our era. Typically, something else besides stereotypes are necessary produce genuine hatred. By themselves they are as likely to produce good feelings as not. C. S. Lewis makes this point in his discussion of patriotism.
“In any mind which has a pennyworth of imagination it produces a good attitude toward foreigners. How can I love my home without coming to realize that other men, no less rightly, love theirs? Once you have realized that the Frenchmen like café complet just as we like bacon and eggs — why, good luck to them and let them have it. The last thing we want is to make everywhere else just like our own home. It would not be home unless it were different.”
But the danger is still there. It is not too big a stretch to consider the different inferior. This is, for the most part, innocent. For if we considered the familiar inferior we would abandon it. But when the different is taken to be wicked for no other reason than its being different, the prejudice is no longer innocent. Though sometimes the different is wicked, its wickedness must be established on independent grounds.
What may be surprising to those who have not thought about this issue is that the healthiest societies are often those considered to be the most racist. The Old South is a good example. The white and the Negro had deeply entrenched stereotypes about each other. The thought of a member from one race being integrated into the family or society of the other was rarely contemplated and never done without severe censure. Nevertheless the two groups got along quite well. Even today, a good deal of this attitude prevails in Dixie and because of this it enjoys better relations between the two races than anywhere else in the country. The two races of the South take a condescendingly humorous attitude towards each other. The differences are acknowledged in a thousand different ways and the result is toleration, not hatred. The thought is, since we are stuck with each other, we might as well make the best of the situation.
The last pitfall I will mention are stereotypes that do not arise from our collective experience, but are manufactured by those with an agenda. Such stereotypes are used to serve a program, usually political, and attempt to pit one group (us) against another group (them). One way to detect this kind, though by no means foolproof, is that they are combined with ethically charged language. They are untrustworthy, evil, rotten, dangerous, while we are kind, just, friendly and good.
The best example of this type of manufactured stereotype is that most Arabs and Persians are violent and even tend toward terrorism. Never mind that Arabs and Persians have lived relatively peacefully with their neighbors for about five hundred years (at least the five hundred years before 1948). And never mind that our own experience with Arabs and Persians tells us that they are friendly, hospitable and easy to engage. The pundits and media assure us otherwise. They are out to destroy us. They hate us. They would as soon kill us as look at us. The gullible buy this line and let bitterness towards these people take root. This makes the warmongers job of selling their wares much easier.
Vive la différence
Stereotypes are rooted in the most obvious banality. So banal that it would be embarrassing to state if it were not for the level of stupidity that has come to characterize our culture. There are differences between different kinds of people. Pretending otherwise is to cease operating rationally.
Most of us prefer the familiar. But this does not entail that we must treat individuals as simply a part of a whole. Informed by our stereotypes we have guide posts to tell us how we can expect people to act. Of course we should give everybody their chance and occasionally we will be surprised when a person does not behave as predicted. But by and large our stereotypes prove correct. In fact, not to (pre-)judge a person by his race or religion or gender is nearly impossible and where it is possible, usually foolish. But to judge somebody solely on these grounds and to fail to confront them as a individual is even more foolish. And to turn our stereotypes into hatred of the other moves beyond folly into wickedness.
And just because we are not to hate the different does not mean that we ought to embrace it as though it has some inherent value. Indeed, those who tend to embrace the different on such shallow grounds most likely do so because they despise the familiar. And if anyone hates the familiar it is impossible to love that which is different. When our Lord tells us we must hate our father and mother, he is not referring to the scoundrel son who already despises them, but the one who places his family before all else. How can I love God if I hate those who for much of my life have stood in God’s place? But if I am not willing to give up even them for the sake of the Kingdom, I will have no place in it.
Since this post is something of a homily, a few applications are in order. First, do not be cowed into thinking there is something wrong with having stereotypes. Central Command wants us to believe that thinking in terms of distinctions is a great evil, perhaps even the greatest evil. We are told that we should live in a color-blind, racially-integrated, mulatto world. This is the philosophy of Babel not Zion. There are God-ordained differences and these should be acknowledged not ignored. Stereotypes capture many of these differences.
Second, our stereotypes, if used properly, lead us to an even greater love for the familiar while at the same time an appreciation for the different. When I travel to Europe I want to see how Germans, Scottish, and Spaniards live. It would be a great loss to see these nations becoming less themselves and more “European.” I want to eat sausages in Munich, hear funny accents in Edinburgh and watch bullfights in Pamplona. The more different they are from my nation, the better. But when I am home, I want to be around those things that are most familiar to me â€“ my people, my language, my food, my culture.
And even when we visit foreign lands, we should not attempt to fully integrate with the people there. We are visitors and must respect our hosts, but this does not mean we are take on their ways. Scripture tells us that we are not to follow a multitude in doing evil. Another useful maxim, though with less applicability and far less authority, might be: Do not follow a multitude just because it is different. When in Rome, by all means, enjoy the differences; but for heaven’s sake, do as you would do in Milledgeville.
Finally, although the issue of segregation is a separate topic (and deserves a separate post) it is so closely tied with stereotypes today that I cannot resist commenting on at least one issue that is of concern to many Christians. We often fret over not having racially integrated churches. There are many reasons for this, most of which are spurious. But at least one probably stems from a theological mistake. We are all made in God’s image and because of this our Lord has commissioned the church to Christianize the world. From these two premises one can erroneously conclude that the local church should include people from as many races as possible. But the church is to make disciples of all nations, not make the local church look like a United Colors of Benetton commercial. If members of different racial groups spontaneously come together for worship, however unlikely this may be, fine. But to turn this into a goal we should be striving toward is without any biblical foundation. There is a place where there is something like integration in worship, but it is not on earth. And notice on those occasion that Scripture gives us a glimpse at heavenly worship, the differences are preserved: tribes, tongues, nations. Our unity in and before Christ does not take away our differences.
The Scottish are cheap, Germans are arrogant, Englishmen are cold. All are stereotypes. All are true. Education in the modern world seldom takes the form of learning something new. More often it takes the form of relearning what our fathers took for granted.