Wednesday, May 16, 2007

On Stereotypes

Walter Lippmann was the founder of The New Republic and was once described by Teddy Roosevelt as "the most brilliant man of his age in all the United States." I've been reading passages from his 1920 masterpiece, Public Opinion, for a class. I just want to excerpt some of his thoughts on stereotypes, which are way ahead of his time (they remind me of similar work by Martha Minow and Angela Harris on categorization, but they were writing a good 70 years later) and ring very true to my own thoughts on the subject.

Lippmann argues that there are at least two main functions to stereotyping. The first is economy--it would simply be impossible to deal with the world if we were forced to be in a constant state of reflection and critique towards the world around us. We need stereotyping to live, to simplify an unimaginably complex world.
There is an economy in [stereotyping]. For the attempt to see all things freshly and in detail, rather than as types and generalities, is exhausting, among busy affairs practically out of the question....
The subtlest and most pervasive of all influences are those which create and maintain the repertory of stereotypes. We are told about the world before we see it. We imagine most things before we experience them. And those preconceptions, unless education has made us acutely aware, govern deeply the whole process of perception. They mark out certain objects as familiar or strange, emphasizing the difference, so that the slightly familiar is seen as very familiar, and the somewhat strange as sharply alien. They are aroused by small signs, which may vary from a true index to a vague analogy. Aroused, they flood fresh vision with older images, and project into the world what has been resurrected in memory. Were there no practical uniformities in the environment, there would be no economy and only error in the human habit of accepting foresight for sight. But there are uniformities sufficiently accurate, and the need of economizing attention is so inevitable, that the abandonment of all stereotypes for a wholly innocent approach to experience would impoverish human life. (59-60)

Everyone stereotypes, and nobody can avoid it. When I step into a car, I use my stereotypes of previous car trips to assume that it will take me where I want to go, and won't explode when I turn the ignition. I would exist in a state of paralysis if I was to constantly question those sorts of assumptions. So when I indict stereotypes (and I do think they're quite dangerous), I am not saying we should stop stereotyping, for we can't. But more on that later.

The second function of stereotyping is, to quote Lippmann, "as defense." Stereotypes allow us to continue to live in a world that is familiar, comfortable, and just--which is why we defend them so vigorously from challenge.
[Stereotypes] are an ordered, more or less consistent picture of the world, to which our habits, our tastes, our capacities, our comforts and our hopes have adjusted themselves. They may not be a complete picture of the world, but they are a picture of a possible world to which we are adapted. In that world people and things have their well-known places, and do certain expected things. We feel at home there. We fit in. We are members. We know the way around. There we find the charm of the familiar, the normal, the dependable; its grooves and shapes are where we are accustomed to find them. And though we have abandoned much that might have tempted us before we creased ourselves into that mould, once we are firmly in, it fits as snugly as an old shoe.

No wonder, then, that any disturbance of the stereotypes seems like an attack upon the foundations of the universe. It is an attack upon the foundations of our universe, and, where big things are at stake, we do not readily admit that there is any distinction between our universe and the universe. A world which turns out to be one in which those we honor are unworthy, and those we despise are noble, is nerve-racking. There is anarchy if our order of precedence is not the only possible one....

A pattern of stereotypes is not neutral. It is not merely a way of substituting order for the great blooming, buzzing confusion of reality. It is not merely a short cut. It is all these things and something more. It is the guarantee of our self-respect; it is the projection upon the world of our own sense of our own value, our own position and our own rights. The stereotypes are, therefore, highly charged with the feelings that are attached to them. They are the fortress of our traditions, and behind its defenses we can continue to feel ourselves safe in the position we occupy (63-64).

I want to clarify Lippmann's claim here. We do need stereotypes to provide order in our lives, part of which includes giving us our own sense of value and meaning. That doesn't mean that the particular stereotypes we hold are the only ones that can give us authentic value and meaning. However, it feels that way to us, which is why we defend our stereotypes with such ferocity.
If experience contradicts the stereotype, one of two things happens. if the man is no longer plastic, or if some powerful interest makes it highly inconvenient to rearrange his stereotypes, he pooh-poohs the contradiction as an exception that proves the rule, discredits the witness, finds a flaw somewhere, and manages to forget it. But if he is still curious and open-minded, the novelty is taken into the picture, and allowed to modify it.... (65-66)

I hope the first response strikes us as familiar, because we've all done it.

As I mentioned above, the process of stereotyping is inevitable. It is also dangerous. It should go without saying that the instinct to retreat into a "fortress" whenever information that clashes with our prevailing viewpoints is not a positive one. So, is this post merely an exercise in fatalism? What do we do with the knowledge that an inextricably part of our human behavior is also a toxin to a functioning democratic polity?
What matters is the character of the stereotypes, and the gullibility with which we employ them. And these in the end depend on those inclusive patterns which constitute our philosophy of life. If in that philosophy we assume that the world is codified according to the code which we possess, we are likely to make our reports of what is going on describe a world run by our code. But if our philosophy tells us that each man is only a small part of the world, that his intelligence catches at best only phases and aspects in a coarse net of ideas, then, when we use our stereotypes, we tend to know that they are only stereotypes, to hold them lightly, to modify them gladly. We tend, also, to realize more and more clearly when our ideas started, where they started, how they came to us, why we accepted them. All useful history is antiseptic in this fashion. It enables us to know what fairy tale, what school book, what tradition, what novel, play, picture, phrase, planted one preconception in this mind, another in that mind (60).

This is the kicker of the argument. One must condition one's worldview to have some "give", to expect challenges and to expect that it will be shaped and changed by alternative narratives. To be agile, to put it briefly. The best part is, we do not need to abandon our stereotypes (as if we could) to do this! We must only be cognizant that we are holding them, and "hold them lightly." So, my obligations as a citizen under this paradigm are twofold:

1) Be explicit about what my biases are from the start, and recognize that they are just that;

2) Not keep a chokehold on those biases in the face of conflicting information.

I've seen people who experience the type of panicked vertigo that occurs when one argues to them that all their preconceived notions are nothing but that, and that the quest for an all-encompassing code is futile. These people panic because they want knowledge that is beyond or above a mere stereotype. This only occurs, then, when people feel that order is impossible without certainty--and this is manifestly not the case. I may operate under the stereotype that my car will take me where I want to go, but if it breaks down, my entire worldview doesn't break down with it. I can deal with the indeterminacy of life when it comes to my car, maintaining an expectation about what my car will do while recognizing that this is not the way it has to or always will be. Philosophy works the same way, and there really isn't an alternative to it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You are a wise man. It's folks like you who make it worthwhile to go to Carleton (and balance out the screaming barbarians who puke and pee everywhere on week-ends).