In sociology class this week the class got into a good discussion about stereotyping. A question came up about whether or not there were some positive aspects to it. I found myself contemplating this question for the rest of the day. The fact that we need to make generalizations about life was one of the things we discussed. The problem is that such generalizations tend to be inaccurate. As the discussion went on I made a comment that went something like: “We go though life in a daze”. After thinking about it for awhile, I decided that that statement is not accurate. We go through life blind.
It is in our nature to generalize. Some of these generalizations are common sense. For example: “Let sleeping dogs lie”. Dog bites hurt enough said. Others are not really meant to be followed like this classic: “Don’t talk to strangers.” That one is great if you’re twelve, but as an adult it is completely ignored. How else would you meet people? But some times the generalizations we make are downright illogical. A friend who I had not talked to in about a year called me up the other day. He has always been a rather conservative type of guy. I would say I am pretty liberal but that has never stopped us from being friends. But as we got down to talking he said something that made no sense to me at all. He asked: “So what’s your opinion on Obama building that mosque at ground zero?” I replied: “I think he threw his back out hoisting the minaret.” I could only guess as to why he seemed to think that the president was involved with the construction of the mosque. I’ll admit that I am not aware of any comments that the president may have made about the ground zero mosque. I’ll bet he did address the issue at some point, but looking back I can’t remember seeing the president make a statement. I should probably pay closer attention to current events. At any rate, if I had to guess I would say that he was probably in favor of letting the construction go through. I think that is a reasonable assumption. However it is quite a leap to say that somehow Barack Obama is responsible for the building of the actual mosque even if I believed he were a Muslim. And by the way, I don’t.
I took a social psychology class last year. There was a chapter on racism. The chapter that I have been going over with this week with my sociology class seems a bit like a review. The difference is that in psychology we were more focused on what causes stereotyping or discrimination on the individual level. I found it very interesting. Human beings are apparently not very good at putting information together. If we need to construct our own internal narratives and there are holes in story we have schemas or scripts that we use to fill in the blanks. Schemas are generalizations that we apply all the time. Image your in your living room. You hear the sound of breaking glass. You run to the kitchen. You see a broken cookie jar and an eight year old child who looks shocked and amazed. We can all guess what happened, and in this case we would all probably be right. This schema is a cliché that were all aware of. Eight year olds like cookies. That’s all well and good. But what about other stereotypes, like all gypsies are thieves or all blacks are lazy? And are our police forces and airport security justified in profiling based on these generalizations? Can’t the citizens of this country be judged on there own merit?
The friend I had mentioned earlier is no fool. He is actually a pretty smart guy. But he was hit hard by the recession. He recently got married. He had a job, but needed a better one. He did not have any luck finding one, so he joined the army. He blames the democrats for the state of the economy. God knows I don’t agree with him, but he’s been having a rough time lately and Barack Obama is kind of like his scapegoat. So he complains about the president, blows off some steam and at the end of the day he feels a little better. I think that this is really why we stereotype and generalize. When life is hard and we don’t have answers, stereotypes can give us the illusion of understanding. That being said, I don’t think that this is actually a justification for stereotyping others. The only way that one can really deal with a problem is by truly understanding it. Not by fooling oneself. Scientific method can offer a more accurate picture of the world than schemas and scripts. But unfortunately science can only give us knowledge about things we can directly observe. The human mind and human motivations are still a mystery to us. The social sciences aim is to understand them through observations of human behavior, yet that still leaves a wide gap in our understanding. If it is our wish to stop stereotyping others, I think we have to become more comfortable with our own ignorance. We must admit to ourselves that we are blind.