Generalizations v. Stereotypes

Some of the most passionate and angered speeches I’ve heard in my short lifetime have been in response to stereotypes. The word “stereotype” immediately conjures up thoughts of race and sex discrimination, insensitive ignoramuses and, very likely, an intense apathy to the very existence of such a problematic phenomenon.

Stereotypes, I agree, are as a whole detrimental. What many fail to understand and distinguish is the value of generalizations. Many find generalizations to be uncomfortably close to stereotypes, especially when concerning race, sex or other identity groups.

This has led, unfortunately, to the tendency of many to renounce generalizations altogether, citing the harm caused by stereotyping. This, I believe, is a great mistake, and one that defies progress and efficient living.

Doing away with generalizations would be a grievous mistake; however, it is still essential to distinguish between a generalization and the harmful stereotype.

Stereotypes, according to sociologist Joel Charon, can be distinguished by six main points: stereotypes pass judgment; stereotypes leave little or no room for exceptions; stereotypes create categories that often dominate all other features of a person, not allowing for other characteristics to be seen and appreciated; stereotypes do not tend to change, even when proven wrong, which supports the idea that it is not backed by empirical evidence after all; stereotypes are also not formed by said empirical evidence to begin with, but instead through anecdote or otherwise and, lastly, stereotypes do not help people understand their differences.

Generalizations, on the other hand, take a mountain of data and produce a convenient pattern with which we can quickly and efficiently process little mounds of dirt resembling those mountains.

Let me develop the metaphor. Quartz is known to be a clear, common crystal. Therefore, is it not logical to assume when someone claims to have found a piece of quartz, that is probably going to be a clear crystal, or if they found a clear crystal, that it is probably going to be quartz? Of course. There is no sin in this. There is only a problem when someone finds rose quartz (a pinkish variety) and is determined that it cannot under any circumstances be quartz, because he or she cannot understand that the characteristics of quartz given above are only generalized.

Unfortunately, the quartz metaphor does not extend much further, but I will draw out one more point. Quartz is identified as quartz exactly because of its characteristics; therefore there is no stereotyping in identifying it as quartz, but rather categorization.

In the real world it can be much harder to establish exact characteristics that define different categories. For instance, what makes a Canadian Canadian? Is it his or her citizenship? Is it his or her tendency to speak French? There is no clear distinction between a Canadian and a non-Canadian; rather, there are innumerable characteristics lumped as a generalized whole to create the ideal Canadian.

It is statistically proven that Canadians are more likely to speak French than, say, Americans. For that reason, especially if one is near the northern border of the U.S., if someone speaks French, there is, statistically speaking, a larger likelihood of him or her being Canadian. That is not to say that they are certain to be Canadian; that is stereotyping — extending statistical probability to certainty.

A complaint I’ve heard several times since I’ve come to Emory is being “randomly” selected to be searched while at an airport. This complaint usually comes from Middle Easterners and other racial minorities around which stereotypes for Jihad suicide bombing and hijacking have been created. While these stereotypes are wrong and hurtful, the fact that most extremist Muslims are part of those racial identities is statistically established, and can create a greater level of efficiency with security.

For instance, it would be stupid to search every Jain extremist (if indeed they even exist) for bombs, because that would be an almost guaranteed waste of manpower. By following statistical trends, security is simply becoming more effective at its job.

So there is certainly a use for generalizations — simply imagine a society without them! If we do not assume that because a vehicle has four wheels and looks like every other car we’ve ever driven in, therefore it must be a mode of transportation, we would get nowhere, but simply waste our time every morning making sure it is in fact a car before driving it to work.

Jonathan Warkentine is a College freshman from Almaty, Kazakhstan. 

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