A few different things have had me thinking lately about how and why we create stereotypes. One of them was a ‘look out for these kinds of cars’ thread on a bike forum: the consensus seemed to be that, in general, large four wheel drive vehicles (SUVs) should be treated with caution, since their drivers seem to feel invulnerable and are sometimes oblivious to the risk they pose to other road users. They also have limited visibility.
Some SUV drivers on the forum (i.e. people who both ride bikes and drive 4x4s) protested that the stereotype is unfair: they are very careful, very aware drivers.
The old stereotypes about Asian drivers and women drivers reared their ugly heads too.
So part of how stereotypes form is because of an identifiable characteristic, often a difference. If an Asian driver pulls out in front of someone, they will notice the carelessness as well as the Asianness, and may falsely generalise to all Asian drivers. Whereas if a Caucasian driver pulls out in front, it’s much more likely that the person will ascribe the action to that individual – “you idiot!” – than to all Caucasians. The same applies for any kind of behaviour, such as crime or certain attitudes, or…
RobW at Trenchant Lemmings currently has a post discussing this process by which we ascribe characteristics differently to the individual or the group, depending on whether it’s a group to which we ourselves belong: http://trenchantlemmings.blogspot.com/2006/09/evolving-self-deception.html
Rob’s post was another of the things that got me thinking about this issue. Sterotyping of all Muslims as violent extremists based on the actions of a few, while characters such as the Unabomber and Timothy McVeigh and Martin Bryant and school shooters are seen as individual whackos is yet another.
But it can be argued that stereotypes do serve a valid function. Sure, not every Pajero driver is dangerous and thoughtless, but if we observe that many are (and recognise that the size and weight of a Pajero magnifies the potential consequences of that), then treating every Pajero we see on the road with care – and perhaps more care than we treat other vehicles – is probably not dangerous. It probably doesn’t hurt the feelings of the Pajeros either, though it may hurt their owners’ feelings if we talk about it.
So stereotypes can have a survival function, if they’re applied with thought rather than reflexively, and if we realise that they are useful generalisations rather than universally true. Sadly, it may be sensible to treat individuals of a certain race with a little more care on a dark night in the city: even if it may not be fair to a particular individual. (And it should be possible to do that in a way that’s not offensive or obvious.)
I think the key is to continually challenge ourselves to get to know and to view each individual person as an individual, rather than a member of a race or other category. Then we don’t have to use the simplifying mechanism of stereotypes, because we know that person and how they will behave. It’s also important to keep challenging our stereotypes and checking their fairness and reality.
But on my ride home, I’ll be keeping a particularly close eye on the Pajeros.