Stereotypes and Uncomfortable Truths

Photo via Iwan Gabovitch

Humans like to categorize things. The world is a complex place, so in order to better understand how things work we simplify them down. And given the limited information of our personal experiences, we often jump to conclusions.  We’ve been doing this since the dawn of language- sometimes for our benefit, but often times for worse.

The poor are lazy. The rich are greedy. Muslims are terrorists. Christians are xenophobes. Irish are drunks. Asians can’t drive. Southerners are stupid. Politicians are corrupt. You get the idea.

Unfortunately, there is something very uncomfortable about some stereotypes: they may hold a comparative truth. In other words, when comparatively speaking between multiple groups of people, stereotypes may represent a larger percentage of a specific group then they would compared to another. This is often why the stereotype exists in the first place. Of course, many stereotypes are complete nonsense and founded in ignorance. But for others, science even provides evidence to confirm them.

For example: It’s a fact that within the European Union, Ireland ranks the highest for per capita consumption of alcohol. Does that mean that all Irish people are drunks? Or even that the majority of them are? Of course not, but comparatively speaking they drink more alcohol than other European countries.

The problem with stereotypes isn’t the fact that it oversimplifies things, but rather that it can potentially enable people to avoid critical thinking. Stereotypes are natural ways our brains can store and retrieve information, and they’re useful so we’re not overloaded with details of everything. However, this means the world can begin to look very black and white. Critical thinking allows for nuance and shades of grey to appear.

We need to be able to acknowledge stereotypes for what they are, but think critically about what they actually mean. This can be done by thinking slow. By doing this we can speak with more clarity on important topics and not confuse nuance for bigotry. So let’s be clear to help prevent misunderstandings of this kind.

 

 

 

 

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