Lying in bed this morning I was thinking about stereotypes. First I was trying to come up with a good definition for what it meant to stereotype someone. Eventually I came up with something like “Assigning certain attributes to someone because they possess some other, usually seemingly unrelated attribute.” For example, assuming someone is dumb because they are blond(e). Everyone is taught that stereotyping is bad, so of course I was trying to come up with an example of when it may not be bad. The best I could come up with was from my younger years when I would go to Las Vegas to play poker. Poker is fundamentally a game of incomplete information. At the most basic level, you have incomplete information about the cards. But if you’re playing at a casino, you usually also have incomplete information about your opponents. Yet you will be required to make decisions, and the information you are missing would likely have a bearing on these decisions. For example, if you knew that your opponent loves to bluff, then it would help you decide whether or not to call the large bet they just made. And here is a case where I think stereotypes can be useful. If it becomes clear to me that someone is a local and is known by most of the dealers, then I tend to assume they are an experienced player who isn’t going to be bluffing wildly. I could be wrong, but provided I am careful in constructing my stereotypes, I think they end up being more helpful than harmful. Obviously I have to keep my eyes open for evidence that I’ve miscategorized someone.
Anyway, that was just a fun mental exercise to see if I could think of a situation where I would knowingly engage in stereotyping. This is not to say I approve of stereotyping in general. It is fraught with danger. Some stereotypes are just silly, like ones which tie hair color to intelligence. But some are more dangerous than that. Racists love to cite statistics about minorities being more likely to commit crimes. But they don’t talk about the fact that crack cocaine is punished far more severely than powder cocaine, even though the only real difference between the two is that one is more prevalent in the ghetto and one is more prevalent among the wealthy. These drug laws have the effect of criminalizing poor drug users far more so than wealthy ones. And partly due to the history of race relations in our country, minorities tend to be poorer than non-minorities. So when people throw around stereotypes tying race to crime, they really need to look at the bigger picture.
Or look at the many gender stereotypes. Some people will defend them by saying that a lot of people bear them out. It is true that many women act “stereotypically feminine” and many men act “stereotypically masculine”. But society TRAINS people to behave in particular ways. Parents, schools, the media, and society as a whole combine to form these stereotypes and to enforce them. So the feminine stereotypes, for example, don’t necessarily have anything to do with being female. And one can see this to some extent just by looking at how different cultures view the concepts of masculinity and femininity.
So I guess in summary, I feel like stereotyping can be useful if done consciously and carefully — at least in situations where decisions must be made and they rely on incomplete information. Kind of like actuarial tables, I guess. Own a red car, pay a higher insurance premium. Choose to smoke, pay more for life insurance. And so on.
This post is kind of scattered. Sorry about that. I actually have another post I want to write about human sexuality. While thinking about that topic, I got side-tracked about stereotypes. Blah. I just want to click “Publish” and wash my hands of this post. It is exhausting me to write this paragraph. So…bye bye!