One of my favorite introductions to a topic comes from Tom Lehrer’s song, “Smut.” “I do have a cause though,” he says, “Smut…I’m for it.” That little ellipsis gives you a chance to imagine why he hates smut so much to have written a song about it or to anticipate how much smut he can work into a song that is purportedly against smut. Nothing prepares you for: I have a cause…smut…I’m for it.
So I have a cause: stereotyping. I’m for it.
I’m not for all the uses of it I have seen, of course, but we are hard-wired for it. It is completely inescapable as a general mechanism for responding to our world and it doesn’t make much sense to be against it. Stereotyping is the practice of seeing an individual as an instance of a category. That’s it.
Stereotyping allows you to give the benefit of the doubt to someone you don’t even know. On the bus I used to take to work, there was a sign that said, “These seats reserved for honored [old] citizens.” So a young woman with two children and three bags of groceries stands, while I sit because I am old? A young man with new crutches stands while I sit because I am old and he is not? I get a slower paced pitch from organizations I have donated to before because the caller reads on the computer screen that I am in my mid-70s?
Yes. All those are instances of stereotyping, i.e., they are cases in which actual persons are treated as if they were instances of categories. The categories are formed, of course, because they unite common elements, such as old = frail.
Stereotyping isn’t a good thing or a bad thing. It’s just a thing that can be put to good or bad uses. Hanging on to the information the category gives you, even when information about this instance of the category becomes available is just stupid. It may be generously intended but it reduces the useful information the stereotyper has to work with and that is seldom a good idea.
As the person making the judgments, I need to be alert to the ways a particular person is not typical of the category. That makes my judgments and therefore my work more effective. As the person being judged—follow the logic here; note that “judged” does not mean “condemned”—you have the responsibility to give me the information I need to treat you as the special case you are. It’s a dance. Either of us can lead; either can follow.
I’ve been spending time touring senior centers recently and over and over, I notice that everyone in a certain category is automatically given certain advantages. When some people, who are members of that category, need additional advantages, they are provided. It’s all good.
Stereotyping can be put to bad purposes as well, of course. Everything can be. If you type by gender and ignore important individual distinctions as they become available, you will have lost valuable information. And if the type is negative, you may have damaged some actual persons as well. If you type by race or age or height or religion, ditto. You lose under any circumstances and individual persons lose if the category is negatively connoted.
Stereotyping isn’t any better or any worse than discriminating. We used to take the trouble to say that we were against “invidious discriminations.” Those are distinctions tending to produce a sentiment for which the Latin noun is invidia or ill will. Of course. But we have stopped taking the time to say “invidious discriminations” and now we purport to be against “discrimination” as if the inability to tell a pinot noir from a cabernet sauvignon were somehow a virtue.
Discrimination just means being able to tell one from another. Stereotyping just means treating instances of a category alike until further information is available. Honestly, I can’t see why we make such trouble for ourselves.