The Merits of Stereotypes

“The trouble with people is not that they don’t know but that they know so much that ain’t so.”
Henry Wheeler Shaw

Do stereotypes usefully represent real knowledge or merely reflect counter-productive prejudice?

Stereotypes invariably refer in a generalized manner to – often arbitrary – groups of people, usually minorities. Stereotypes need not necessarily be derogatory or cautionary, though most of them are. The “noble savage” and the “wild savage” are both stereotypes. Indians in movies, note Ralph and Natasha Friar in their work titled “The Only Good Indian – The Hollywood Gospel” (1972) are overwhelmingly drunken, treacherous, unreliable, and childlike. Still, some of them are as portrayed as unrealistically “good”.

But alcoholism among Native Americans – especially those crammed into reservations – is, indeed, more prevalent than among the general population. The stereotype conveys true and useful information about inebriation among Indians. Could its other descriptors be equally accurate?

It is hard to unambiguously define, let alone quantify, traits. At which point does self-centerdness become egotism or the pursuit of self-interest – treachery? What precisely constitutes childlike behavior? Some types of research cannot even be attempted due to the stifling censorship of political correctness. Endeavoring to answer a simple question like: “Do blacks in America really possess lower IQ’s and, if so, is this deficiency hereditary?” has landed many an American academic beyond the pale.

The two most castigated aspects of stereotypes are their generality and their prejudice. Implied in both criticisms is a lack of veracity and rigor of stereotypes. Yet, there is nothing wrong with generalizations per se. Science is constructed on such abstractions from private case to general rule. In historiography we discuss “the Romans” or “ancient Greeks” and characterize them as a group. “Nazi Germany”, “Communist Russia”, and “Revolutionary France” are all forms of groupspeak.

In an essay titled “Helping Students Understand Stereotyping” and published in the April 2001 issue of “Education Digest”, Carlos Cortes suggest three differences between “group generalizations” and “stereotypes”:

“Group generalizations are flexible and permeable to new, countervailing, knowledge – ideas, interpretations, and information that challenge or undermine current beliefs. Stereotypes are rigid and resistant to change even in the face of compelling new evidence.

Second, group generalizations incorporate intragroup heterogeneity while stereotypes foster intragroup homogeneity. Group generalizations embrace diversity – ‘there are many kinds of Jews, tall and short, mean and generous, clever and stupid, black and white, rich and poor’. Stereotypes cast certain individuals as exceptions or deviants – ‘though you are Jewish, you don’t behave as a Jew would, you are different’.

Finally, while generalizations provide mere clues about group culture and behavior – stereotypes purport to proffer immutable rules applicable to all the members of the group. Stereotypes develop easily, rigidify surreptitiously, and operate reflexively, providing simple, comfortable, convenient bases for making personal sense of the world. Because generalizations require greater attention, content flexibility, and nuance in application, they do not provide a stereotype’s security blanket of permanent, inviolate, all-encompassing, perfectly reliable group knowledge.”

It is commonly believed that stereotypes form the core of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of xenophobia. Stereotypes, goes the refrain, determine the content and thrust of prejudices and propel their advocates to take action against minorities. There is a direct lineage, it is commonly held, between typecasting and lynching.

It is also claimed that pigeonholing reduces the quality of life, lowers the expectations, and curbs the accomplishments of its victims. The glass ceiling and the brass ceiling are pernicious phenomena engendered by stereotypes. The fate of many social policy issues – such as affirmative action, immigration quotas, police profiling, and gay service in the military – is determined by stereotypes rather than through informed opinion.

USA Today Magazine reported the findings of a survey of 1000 girls in grades three to twelve conducted by Harris Interactive for “Girls”. Roughly half the respondents thought that boys and girls have the same abilities – compared to less than one third of boys. A small majority of the girls felt that “people think we are only interested in love and romance”.

Somewhat less than two thirds of the girls were told not to brag about things they do well and were expected to spend the bulk of their time on housework and taking care of younger children.  Stereotypical thinking had a practical effect: girls who believe that they are as able as boys and face the same opportunities are way more likely to plan to go to college.

But do boys and girls have the same abilities? Absolutely not. Boys are better at spatial orientation and math. Girls are better at emotions and relationships. And do girls face the same opportunities as boys? It would be perplexing if they did, taking into account physiological, cognitive, emotional, and reproductive disparities – not to mention historical and cultural handicaps. It boils down to this politically incorrect statement: girls are not boys and never will be.

Still, there is a long stretch from “girls are not boys” to “girls are inferior to boys” and thence to “girls should be discriminated against or confined”. Much separates stereotypes and generalizations from discriminatory practice.

Discrimination prevails against races, genders, religions, people with alternative lifestyles or sexual preferences, ethnic groups, the poor, the rich, professionals, and any other conceivable minority. It has little to do with stereotypes and a lot to do with societal and economic power matrices. Granted, most racists typecast blacks and Indians, Jews and Latinos. But typecasting in itself does not amount to racism, nor does it inevitably lead to discriminatory conduct.

In a multi-annual study titled “Economic Insecurity, Prejudicial Stereotypes, and Public Opinion on Immigration Policy”, published by the Political Science Quarterly, the authors Peter Burns and James Gimpel substantiated the hypothesis that “economic self-interest and symbolic prejudice have often been treated as rival explanations for attitudes on a wide variety of issues, but it is plausible that they are complementary on an issue such as immigration. This would be the case if prejudice were caused, at least partly, by economic insecurity.”

A long list of scholarly papers demonstrate how racism – especially among the dispossessed, dislocated, and low-skilled – surges during times of economic hardship or social transition. Often there is a confluence of long-established racial and ethnic stereotypes with a growing sense of economic insecurity and social dislocation.

“Social Identity Theory” tells us that stereotypical prejudice is a form of compensatory narcissism. The acts of berating, demeaning, denigrating, and debasing others serve to enhance the perpetrators’ self-esteem and regulate their labile sense of self-worth. It is vicarious “pride by proxy” – belonging to an “elite” group bestows superiority on all its members. Not surprisingly, education has some positive influence on racist attitudes and political ideology.

Having been entangled – sometimes unjustly – with bigotry and intolerance, the merits of stereotypes have often been overlooked.

In an age of information overload, “nutshell” stereotypes encapsulate information compactly and efficiently and thus possess an undeniable survival value. Admittedly, many stereotypes are self-reinforcing, self-fulfilling prophecies. A young black man confronted by a white supremacist may well respond violently and an Hispanic, unable to find a job, may end up is a street gang.

But this recursiveness does not detract from the usefulness of stereotypes as “reality tests” and serviceable prognosticators. Blacks do commit crimes over and above their proportion in the general population. Though stereotypical in the extreme, it is a useful fact to know and act upon. Hence racial profiling.

Stereotypes – like fables – are often constructed around middle class morality and are prescriptive. They split the world into the irredeemably bad – the other, blacks, Jews, Hispanics, women, gay – and the flawlessly good, we, the purveyors of the stereotype. While expressly unrealistic, the stereotype teaches “what not to be” and “how not to behave”. A by-product of this primitive rendition is segregation.

A large body of scholarship shows that proximity and familiarity actually polarize rather than ameliorate inter-ethnic and inter-racial tensions. Stereotypes minimize friction and violence by keeping minorities and the majority apart. Venting and vaunting substitute for vandalizing and worse. In time, as erstwhile minorities are gradually assimilated and new ones emerge, conflict is averted.

Moreover, though they frequently reflect underlying deleterious emotions – such as rage or envy – not all stereotypes are negative. Blacks are supposed to have superior musical and athletic skills. Jews are thought to be brainier in science and shrewder in business. Hispanics uphold family values and ethnic cohesion. Gays are sensitive and compassionate. And negative stereotypes are attached even to positive social roles – athletes are dumb and violent, soldiers inflexible and programmed.

Stereotypes are selective filters. Supporting data is hoarded and information to the contrary is ignored. One way to shape stereotypes into effective coping strategies is to bombard their devotees with “exceptions”, contexts, and alternative reasoning.

Blacks are good athletes because sports is one of the few egalitarian career paths open to them. Jews, historically excluded from all professions, crowded into science and business and specialized. If gays are indeed more sensitive or caring than the average perhaps it is because they have been repressed and persecuted for so long. Athletes are not prone to violence – violent athletes simply end up on TV more often. And soldiers have to act reflexively to survive in battle.

There is nothing wrong with stereotypes if they are embedded in reality and promote the understanding of social and historical processes. Western, multi-ethnic, pluralistic civilization celebrates diversity and the uniqueness and distinctiveness of its components. Stereotypes merely acknowledge this variety.

USA Today Magazine reported in January a survey of 800 adults, conducted last year by social psychology professors Amanda Diekman of Purdue University and Alice Eagly of Northwestern University. They found that far from being rigid and biased, stereotypes regarding the personality traits of men and women have changed dramatically to accurately reflect evolving gender roles.

Diekman noted that “women are perceived as having become much more assertive, independent, and competitive over the years… Our respondents – whether they were old enough to have witnessed it or not – recognized the role change that occurred when women began working outside the home in large numbers and the necessity of adopting characteristics that equip them to be breadwinners.”

Also Read:

The Science of Superstitions


Thoughts on the Internet’s Founding Myths

Whenever I put forth on the Internet’s numerous newsgroups, discussion fora and Websites a controversial view, an iconoclastic opinion, or a much-disputed thesis, the winning argument against my propositions starts with “everyone knows that …”. For a self-styled nonconformist medium, the Internet is the reification of herd mentality.

Actually, it is founded on the rather explicit belief in the implicit wisdom of the masses. This particularly pernicious strong version of egalitarianism postulates that veracity, accuracy, and truth are emergent phenomena, the inevitable and, therefore, guaranteed outcome of multiple interactions between users.

But the population of Internet users is not comprised of representative samples of experts in every discipline. Quite the contrary. The barriers to entry are so low that the Internet attracts those less gifted intellectually. It is a filter that lets in the stupid, the mentally ill, the charlatan and scammer, the very young, the bored, and the unqualified. It is far easier to publish a blog, for instance, than to write for the New York Times. Putting up a Website with all manner of spurious claims for knowledge or experience is easy compared to the peer review process that vets and culls scientific papers.

One can ever “contribute” to an online “encyclopedia”, the Wikipedia, without the slightest acquaintance the topic one is “editing”. Consequently, the other day, I discovered, to my utter shock, that Eichmann changed his name, posthumously, to Otto. It used to be Karl Adolf, at least until he was executed in 1962.

Granted, there are on the Internet isolated islands of academic merit, intellectually challenging and invigorating discourse, and true erudition or even scholarship. But they are mere islets in the tsunami of falsities, fatuity, and inanities that constitutes the bulk of User Generated Content (UGC).

Which leads me to the second myth: that access is progress.

Oceans of information are today at the fingertips of one and sundry. This is undisputed. The Internet is a vast storehouse of texts, images, audio recordings, and databases. But what matters is whether people make good use of this serendipitous cornucopia. A savage who finds himself amidst the collections of the Library of Congress is unlikely to benefit much.

Alas, most people today are cultural savages, Internet users the more so. They are lost among the dazzling riches that surround them. Rather than admit to their inferiority and accept their need to learn and improve, they claim “equal status”. It is a form of rampant pathological narcissism, a defense mechanism that is aimed to fend off the injury of admitting to one’s inadequacies and limitations.

Internet users have developed an ethos of anti-elitism. There are no experts, only opinions, there are no hard data, only poll results. Everyone is equally suited to contribute to any subject. Learning and scholarship are frowned on or even actively discouraged. The public’s taste has completely substituted for good taste. Yardsticks, classics, science – have all been discarded.

Study after study have demonstrated clearly the decline of functional literacy (the ability to read and understand labels, simple instructions, and very basic texts) even as literacy (in other words, repeated exposure to the alphabet) has increased dramatically all over the world.

In other words: most people know how to read but precious few understand what they are reading. Yet, even the most illiterate, bolstered by the Internet’s mob-rule, insist that their interpretation of the texts they do not comprehend is as potent and valid as anyone else’s.

Web 2.0 – Hoarding, Not Erudition

When I was growing up in a slum in Israel, I devoutly believed that knowledge and education will set me free and catapult me from my miserable circumstances into a glamorous world of happy learning. But now, as an adult, I find myself in an alien universe where functional literacy is non-existent even in developed countries, where “culture” means merely sports and music, where science is decried as evil and feared by increasingly hostile and aggressive masses, and where irrationality in all its forms  (religiosity, the occult, conspiracy theories) flourishes.

The few real scholars and intellectuals left are on the retreat, back into the ivory towers of a century ago. Increasingly, their place is taken by self-taught “experts”, narcissistic bloggers, wannabe “authors” and “auteurs”, and partisan promoters of (often self-beneficial) “causes”. The mob thus empowered and complimented feels vindicated and triumphant. But history cautions us that mobs have never produced enlightenment – only concentration camps and bloodied revolutions. the Internet can and will be used against us if we don’t regulate it.

Dismal results ensue:

The Wikipedia “encyclopedia” – a repository of millions of factoids, interspersed with juvenile trivia, plagiarism, bigotry, and malice – is “edited” by anonymous users with unlimited access to its contents and absent or fake credentials.

Hoarding has replaced erudition everywhere. People hoard e-books, mp3 tracks, and photos. They memorize numerous fact and “facts” but can’t tell the difference between them or connect the dots. The synoptic view of knowledge, the interconnectivity of data, the emergence of insight from treasure-troves of information are all lost arts.

In an interview in early 2007, the publisher of the New-York Times said that he wouldn’t mourn the death of the print edition of the venerable paper and its replacement by a digital one. This nonchalant utterance betrays unfathomable ignorance. Online readers are vastly different to consumers of printed matter: they are younger, their attention span is far shorter, their interests far more restricted and frivolous. The New-York Times online will be forced into becoming a tabloid – or perish altogether.

Fads like environmentalism and alternative “medicine” spread malignantly and seek to silence dissidents, sometimes by violent means.

The fare served by the electronic media everywhere now consists largely of soap operas, interminable sports events, and reality TV shows. True, niche cable channels cater to the preferences of special audiences. But, as a result of this inauspicious fragmentation, far fewer viewers are exposed to programs and features on science, literature, arts, or international affairs.

Reading is on terminal decline. People spend far more in front of screens – both television’s and computer – than leafing through pages. Granted, they read online: jokes, anecdotes, puzzles, porn, and e-mail or IM chit-chat. Those who try to tackle longer bits of text, tire soon and revert to images or sounds.

With few exceptions, the “new media” are a hodgepodge of sectarian views and fabricated “news”. The few credible sources of reliable information have long been drowned in a cacophony of fakes and phonies or gone out of business.

It is a sad mockery of the idea of progress. The more texts we make available online, the more research is published, the more books are written – the less educated people are, the more they rely on visuals and soundbites rather than the written word, the more they seek to escape reality and be anesthetized rather than be challenged and provoked.

Even the ever-slimming minority who do wish to be enlightened are inundated by a suffocating and unmanageable avalanche of indiscriminate data, comprised of both real and pseudo-science. There is no way to tell the two apart, so a “democracy of knowledge” reigns where everyone is equally qualified and everything goes and is equally merited. This relativism is dooming the twenty-first century to become the beginning of a new “Dark Age”, hopefully a mere interregnum between two periods of genuine enlightenment.

The Demise of the Expert and the Ascendance of the Layman

In the age of Web 2.0, authoritative expertise is slowly waning. The layman reasserts herself as a fount of collective mob “wisdom”. Information – unsorted, raw, sometimes wrong – substitutes for structured, meaningful knowledge. Gatekeepers – intellectuals, academics, scientists, and editors, publishers, record companies, studios – are summarily and rudely dispensed with. Crowdsourcing (user-generated content, aggregated for commercial ends by online providers) replaces single authorship.

A confluence of trends conspired to bring about these ominous developments:

1. An increasingly narcissistic culture that encourages self-absorption, haughtiness, defiance of authority, a sense of entitlement to special treatment and omniscience, incommensurate with actual achievements. Narcissistic and vain Internet users feel that they are superior and reject all claims to expertise by trained professionals.

2. The emergence of technologies that remove all barriers to entry and allow equal rights and powers to all users, regardless of their qualifications, knowledge, or skills: wikis (the most egregious manifestation of which is the Wikipedia), search engines (Google), blogging (that is rapidly supplanting professionally-written media), and mobiles (cell) phones equipped with cameras for ersatz documentation and photojournalism. Disintermediation rendered redundant all brokers, intermediaries, and gatekeepers of knowledge and quality of content.

3. A series of species-threatening debacles by scientists and experts who collaborated with the darkest, vilest, and most evil regimes humanity has ever produced. This sell-out compromised their moral authority and standing. The common folk began not only to question their ethical credentials and claim to intellectual leadership, but also to paranoidally suspect their motives and actions, supervise, and restrict them. Spates of scandals by scientists who falsified lab reports and intellectuals who plagiarized earlier works did nothing to improve the image of academe and its denizens.

4. By its very nature, science as a discipline and, more particularly, scientific theories, aspire to discover the “true” and “real”, but are doomed to never get there. Indeed, unlike religion, for instance, science claims no absolutes and proudly confesses to being merely asymptotic to the Truth. In medicine, physics, and biology, today’s knowledge is tomorrow’s refuse. Yet, in this day and age of maximal uncertainty, minimal personal safety, raging epidemics, culture shocks and kaleidoscopic technological change, people need assurances and seek immutables.

Inevitably, this gave rise to a host of occult and esoteric “sciences”, branches of “knowledge”, and practices, including the fervid observance of religious fundamentalist rites and edicts. These offered alternative models of the Universe, replete with parent-figures, predictability, and primitive rituals of self-defense in an essentially hostile world. As functional literacy crumbled and people’s intellectual diet shifted from books to reality TV, sitcoms, and soap operas, the old-new disciplines offer instant gratification that requires little by way of cerebral exertion and critical faculties.

Moreover, scientific theories are now considered as mere “opinions” to be either “believed” or “disbelieved”, but no longer proved, or, rather falsified. In his novel, “Exit Ghost”, Philip Roth puts this telling exclamation in the mouth of the protagonist, Richard Kliman: “(T)hese are people who don’t believe in knowledge”.

The Internet tapped into this need to “plug and play” with little or no training and preparation. Its architecture is open, its technologies basic and “user-friendly”, its users largely anonymous, its code of conduct (Netiquette) flexible and tolerant, and the “freedoms” it espouses are anarchic and indiscriminate.

The first half of the 20th century was widely thought to be the terrible culmination of Enlightenment rationalism. Hence its recent worrisome retreat . Moral and knowledge relativism (e.g., deconstruction) took over. Technology obliged and hordes of “users” applied it to gnaw at the edifice of three centuries of Western civilization as we know it.

Also Read:

The Six Sins of the Wikipedia

Is Education a Public Good?

The Idea of Reference

The Future of the Book

The Kidnapping of Content

The Internet and the Library

The Future of Online Reference

Will Content Ever be Profitable?

The Disintermediation of Content

The Future of Electronic Publishing

Free Online Scholarship – Interview with Peter Suber

Narcissist vs. Psychopath

We all heard the terms “psychopath” or “sociopath”. These are the old names for a patient with the Antisocial Personality Disorder (AsPD). It is hard to distinguish narcissists from psychopaths. The latter may simply be a less inhibited and less grandiose form of the former. Indeed, the DSM V Committee is considering to abolish this distinction altogether. Still, there are some important nuances setting the two disorders apart:

As opposed to most narcissists, psychopaths are either unable or unwilling to control their impulses or to delay gratification. They use their rage to control people and manipulate them into submission.

Psychopaths, like narcissists, lack empathy but many of them are also sadistic: they take pleasure in inflicting pain on their victims or in deceiving them. They even find it funny!

Psychopaths are far less able to form interpersonal relationships, even the twisted and tragic relationships that are the staple of the narcissist.

Both the psychopath and the narcissist disregard society, its conventions, social cues and social treaties. But the psychopath carries this disdain to the extreme and is likely to be a scheming, calculated, ruthless, and callous career criminal. Psychopaths are deliberately and gleefully evil while narcissists are absent-mindedly and incidentally evil. From my book “Malignant Self Love – Narcissism Revisited”:

“As opposed to what Scott Peck says, narcissists are not evil – they lack the intention to cause harm (mens rea). As Millon notes, certain narcissists ‘incorporate moral values into their exaggerated sense of superiority. Here, moral laxity is seen (by the narcissist) as evidence of inferiority, and it is those who are unable to remain morally pure who are looked upon with contempt.’ (Millon, Th., Davis, R. – Personality Disorders in Modern Life – John Wiley and Sons, 2000). Narcissists are simply indifferent, callous and careless in their conduct and in their treatment of others. Their abusive conduct is off-handed and absent-minded, not calculated and premeditated like the psychopath’s.”

Psychopaths really do not need other people while narcissists are addicted to narcissistic supply (the admiration, attention, and envy of others).

Millon and Davis (supra) add (p. 299-300):

“When the egocentricity, lack of empathy, and sense of superiority of the narcissist cross-fertilize with the impulsivity, deceitfulness, and criminal tendencies of the antisocial, the result is a psychopath, an individual who seeks the gratification of selfish impulses through any means without empathy or remorse.”

Read The Antisocial and Psychopath

Read Notes from the therapy of a Narcissistic Patient

Read Notes from the therapy of a Psychopathic Patient

Many additional Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Personality Disorders – click HERE!