Friday, October 07, 2005

Post No. 34: Looking At Stereotypes

Okay, I will be direct now. Stereotypes are everywhere. There’s no way we can escape from them. All of us have either stereotyped someone before or been stereotyped by others before. Stereotypes are so pervasive that it would be no exaggeration for me to say that they have permeated into almost, if not every, every sphere of our lives. Stereotypes can adopt many different forms; some of which we recognise and others that we don’t recognise. However, before I start rambling on & on again, what is a stereotype? How and why are they so pervasive? What impact do they have on us & the society we live in?

Well, according to the Cambridge International Dictionary of English (which I have a copy of), a “stereotype” is defined as: “ a fixed set of ideas that is generally held about the characteristics of a particular type of person or thing, which are (wrongly) believed to be shared by all the people and things of that type”. I suppose that answers the question of what a stereotype is. As for the other 2 questions that I have raised above, I shall be examining them and attempting to provide possible answers for them below.

However, before I start to do so, it is my opinion that it would be most appropriate & relevant for me to discuss some of the common stereotypes that I have encountered before to demonstrate how pervasive stereotypes are in our lives.

Okay now, I suppose that people usually have stereotypes about certain schools and students from these certain schools. Speaking from personal experience, students from my secondary school are commonly stereotyped as being very “guai1” (obedient & studious), “square” and “cheena” (however, having already graduated from my secondary school for 4 years, I’m not entirely certain whether these stereotypes are still prevalent or not. Perhaps my juniors are more “round” now). As for my junior college, it is only after I have graduated from it that I realise that people stereotype students from my JC as being “muggers who want to push their school into the ranks of the top 5 JCs” (this was when school rankings for JCs still existed). Also, I have heard about how one JC is filled with “rich beautiful/good-looking students who speak proper English (and usually with a slang)” while another JC supposedly have “beautiful girls with very short skirts”. And with no intention of offence, I have also heard about how another JC is supposedly still lit by oil lamps (this was before the school campus of this JC was renovated)… On a more serious note, it goes to show how widespread & pervasive these stereotypes are that though I haven’t mentioned any names, you all can perhaps already guess at what schools I was referring to in this paragraph.

Oh yeah, I suppose you all are also familiar with the stereotype or “image” of students from a certain local university being more “creative”, “dynamic”, “outspoken/articulate”, “hip”, “entrepreneurial” and having “high SAT scores”. Lest you all be mistaken that this is a veiled criticism of this local university because I can’t get into it, let me inform you all that I have a place reserved for me at this university. However, being a thinking individual, I do have my doubts about how true this “image” of this university is and how much of it is perhaps just hype. Well, I guess I will find out if I, in the end, do choose to study at this university.

Besides stereotyping schools and their students, I have observed that we also stereotype people based on their country of origin. For example, a French man, if I’m not mistaken, is commonly stereotyped as being “good-looking”, “cultured”, “romantic” and perhaps a tad bit “chauvinistic” and “snobbish”. And I suppose you all are familiar with the stereotype of us Singaporeans as being “law-abiding”, “kiasu” & “calculative” people who “don’t dare to speak up (especially about stuff of a local political nature)". In addition, perhaps this is only true within the local context, female citizens from The Philippines and/or Indonesia and males from Sri Lanka and/or Bangladesh are usually stereotyped as being maids and construction workers respectively. There are many more such stereotypes but for the sake of keeping this post short, I wouldn’t be discussing them.

It is also my personal observation that we too stereotype people who work in certain professions. For instance, doctors supposedly have atrocious handwriting while lawyers are perceived to be argumentative. And I suppose you all are familiar with the derogatory stereotype of jobs such as road sweepers, rubbish collectors and toilet cleaners as being “low-class” jobs only fit for lowly-educated people and/or foreign workers.

Okay now, I suppose I have discussed enough stereotypes for now. As promised, I would now move on to look at the reasons why stereotypes are so pervasive and what sort of impact do they have on us and the society we live in.

From my viewpoint, one possible reason for the pervasiveness of stereotypes could be because that they usually contain a small grain of truth in them. It’s like how the saying goes: “No smoke without fire”. Using this small grain of truth as a foundation, people tend to generalise and build a whole set of assumptions of their own. In other words, that small grain of truth is usually overblown into the stereotypes that people have. Also, intertwined together with this reason is the fact that people do not and cannot know everything about everything and everybody. What I mean is that being handicapped by a lack of knowledge, understanding & interaction with and about something, people understandably mistake a small grain of truth about something/someone to be the whole truth about that particular thing or person.

In addition, another possible explanation for why stereotypes are so widespread would be that people have the tendency to generalise and induce stuff about things & people they do not fully understand. There is just too much information & knowledge out there in the world for us to fully grasp. Hence, partly as a way to cope with such a situation, we tend to generalise and induce so that we can create a base of supposedly “valid” and “certain” knowledge for us to relate & refer to things/people around us. An appropriate analogy would be if we opened up a barrel of apples and found that the top layer of apples is already spoilt, we would understandably induce that the whole barrel of apples is spoilt. Another appropriate analogy, as proposed by David Hume, would be that having seen only white swans before, people would normally induce that all swans are white until they encounter a black swan (yes, black swans do exist). Furthermore, let’s admit it: people are lazy. We don’t bother to find out more about something or someone to build a more nuanced & better perception of that thing or person; instead we prefer to stick to our general and first impressions (and possibly mistaken) about things/people around us. Referring back to the analogy about the barrel of apples I used above, we don’t bother to go through the whole barrel of apples to check whether all the apples are spoilt, we prefer to save time & effort and just assume all the apples are spoilt. To summarise this paragraph, stereotypes are perhaps convenient to “lazy” people with limited knowledge as a way of labeling people/things around them.

To add on, another possible reason for why stereotypes could become so pervasive could perhaps be because that they are, in a way, funny. To support this point, I would argue that you all would have found the stereotypes I discussed in the 4th to 7th paragraphs somewhat funny. To keep a long story short, humour is a good & common form of social lubricant and stereotypes, being a form of humour that is basic & easy to understand, are commonly tapped as a source of humour to be used as social lubricant.

Okay, now that I have perhaps answered why stereotypes are so pervasive, I would move on to examine the impact of stereotypes on society. In my opinion, stereotypes, while generally harmless, can become a malicious tool in the hands of those intent on provoking ill-will & hatred against a certain group of people and/or a certain person. One need not look further than recent cases of Muslims becoming targets of malicious stereotypes to recognise the possible harm stereotypes can create in the wrong hands. Also, it must be considered that it is possible that harm could arise from the situation whereby a person, being naively ignorant about what in his/her store of knowledge are valid truths and what are stereotypes, could unintentionally say something stereotypical that results in ill-will in others and set off a chain of escalating misunderstandings. In a way, this was how the Cold War started, looking from the post-revisionist viewpoint.

Well, like what I have said in the first paragraph, there is no way we can escape from stereotypes. They are perhaps too deeply embedded in our common psyche for us to completely wipe them out. All we can do is to try to be aware & mindful that some perceptions of ours are no more than mere stereotypes. Also, we need to be vigilant against unintentionally spreading and/or using stereotypes which are derogatory or malicious in nature and whenever possible, speak out against them. In addition, I would advocate that we find out more about something/someone before we decide on our opinion about that something/somebody to avoid having stereotypical views about things/people around us.

Having written much longer than what I initially intended to, I would conclude this post here & now.

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