Saturday, 13 April 2013

Stereotypes aren't innately evil

Stereotypes are good. Usually.

I can sense people getting ready to howl, so I’ll just say read the whole post first then unfurl your internet rage.

Stereotyping is bad, according common opinion. That’s a crock. Stereotyping allows you to get out of bed in the morning and make it farther than the closet without your brain exploding. Stereotypes are simply mental shortcuts that allow us to identify something as belonging to a class of objects.

I see a red shiny apple, my mind buttonholes it into the apple stereotype “tree-fruit, sweet, healthy” without having to go through a true, exhausting process of mentation. Picture yourself approaching that identification without using stereotypes: I see an object. It appears to be a red fruit. I feel it, it is firm. I rub it on cloth, it shines, showing a high wax content in the skin. I taste it to confirm my hypothesis, Eureka! It IS an apple!  Even that assessment uses stereotypes – I have preconceived notions of what “red” “shine” “firm” "fruit" etc. are.

Everything we do all day requires accepting unthinking, innate definitions we form for ourselves or through contacts with others. I don’t have any first-hand experience with orbital launch vehicles, but I do have a stereotype box that “manned rockets” fit into. Some of it is no doubt oversimplified or just plain wrong, but I don’t have the time or energy to research rocketry myself and follow Goddard to a full, intelligent understanding of the damn things. Life is too short.

Stereotypes are quick-use mental sieves that allow us to separate wheat from chaff. They are neither good nor bad; they’re part of how we think. Humans will never be able to approach any new thought or item without pushing it through their personal series of stereotypes in order to see what the new thing may be.

That being said, where we fail as reasonable humans is the point at which we cling to a stereotype in defiance of obvious conflicts between its defining characteristics and testable reality. That’s where you get otherwise sane individuals who will, straight-faced, tell you that black people just aren’t as smart as Asians, or all gypsies are crooks, or the gays are out to overthrown the church or whatever. They’ve built or inherited a series of stereotypes that are telling them these things are true, but aren’t capable of the independent intelligence to see that their benchmarks are failing them and are parsing information erroneously. They’re ignorant people trying to make sense of a world using broken tools.

We don’t need a ban on stereotypes. Lots are useful if not 100-percent accurate – such as “touching things that glow is bad” – but we do need to work on banning ignorance and mindless dedication to any set of assumptions that fail to reflect reality.

Whether the source of your assumptions grows from pseudo-science, ancient belief, ignorance or self-centered greed doesn’t matter.  If a tool no longer functions, discard it and find a new one.