Stereotypes and Categories


  • “Stereotyping” is a widely used but poorly understood term in contemporary life.
  • A stereotype may involve a false categorization or the insertion of an unsuitable element into a legitimate category.
  • Both kinds of stereotyping are erroneous and indicate the mental sloth properly called prejudice.
  • Postmodernism condemns stereotyping but its identity markers are invariably as stereotypical as the discriminatory stereotypes they seek to replace.
  • This confusion tempts postmodernists to try to avoid all categorizations for fear of stereotyping, but this robs them of a powerful rational tool of judgment.
  • Tribalism is a ubiquitous temptation to stereotyping.

In the eternal battle between liberty and equality, I am generally in favor of putting my thumb on the equality side of the scales if only because it is perpetually outweighed by the attractions of liberty, particularly in the U.S. (see “The Riddle of Equality”). And I deeply admire young persons’ commitment to equality nowadays, though I abjure the group identity theories that seem to shape their commitment. The thread that runs through so many conversations in this social fabric seems to depend on a definition of stereotyping that confuses me, particularly in regard to its use of categorization as a related term. The imprecision and negative connotations of the former seem to stain the latter, and that is a shame.

My understanding of the meaning of “stereotyping” involves a categorical filing error. That can happen in one of two ways: either one places a file in a folder where it doesn’t belong or one creates a folder that forces misfiling of whatever is put into it. In human terms, it  is to prejudge an individual according to some group characteristic or to form that group characterization from an inadequate exposure to its members. The injustice of such prejudice seems obvious. You probably are familiar with the wag’s distinction between categorization and stereotyping: the latter involves a judgment you disagree with. But that approach robs both words of their meanings and renders productive conversations impossible. Besides, it misses the point. Whether the stereotype is complimentary or insulting is irrelevant to the real issue, for the error is rooted in the prejudice itself regardless of whether the judgment involved is positive or negative. Good stereotypes are as objectionable as bad ones because they constitute a kind of mental sloth: we assume that we know something about a group or an individual that we cannot know. But I think this understanding of the term is controversial. Something else is afoot, something having nothing to do with demanding sound reasoning. Whatever the cause, this whole subject has provoked distaste and avoidance. The reaction among committed egalitarians is to try to abstain from any kind of categorization whatsoever, but I wonder if this may be an overreaction.

This may be one of those eddies of self-contradiction that swirls through postmodernism, for it has rooted its theories in the kind of group identity that Marx made infamous (see “One Postmodern Sentence“). Educated young people who may or may not be aware of postmodernism’s influence on their thinking–being educated means being inundated in the zeitgeist’s current obsessions–are devoted to the analyses of the influences of composited “cultures” of gender, race, economic class, demographic groups and so on on the one hand. But on the other, those same persons are resistant to thinking their own consciousness formed by the shaping mechanisms they apply to others. I mean no denigration in pointing out this inconsistency, for it is no different from Marx thinking himself immune to the bourgeois mindset or Freud admiring the power of his ego ideal. We think ourselves above the fray. But though postmodern cultures construct their understanding on deconstructing the hidden influences of the group on the individual, it faces contrary impulses from popular media and commercialism that glorify existential freedom. Cultures give as they take away.

One more point about current cultures needs mentioning as preface. The distinction between the powerful and the powerless also plays into the dynamic of stereotyping, for postmodernism’s premises leave it no means to resolve conflict other than by the naked or disguised exercise of power. The French revolutionaries and academics who systematized postmodernism came of age during the anti-colonial and Cold War conflicts that pitted the industrialized and capitalist world against people of color and the powerless. The theorists were apostles of equality, but their worldview was grounded also in a phenomenology of experience that valued nurture over nature. After all, it was their opponents who preached the doctrine of racial, ethnic, gender, and class superiority, so postmodern opposition to the natural superiority of any social category was assured. The problem was the very phenomenology they took as determinative of all claims to truth denied them the appeal to justice that claims to equality rely on (see “Postmodernism’s Unsettling Disagreements“).

Notice how frequently the word “appropriate” appears in contemporary parlance and how seldom “moral” does. This seems a nudge-and-wink kind of acknowledgement that it is the culture that sets standards, though, of course, “the culture” does not exist to pronounce them (see Cultural Consensus”). We all participate in manifold cultures, each with their own notions of what is “appropriate,” and we somehow are asked to harmonize their demands as a substitute for a public moral consensus. That this goal is unattainable is a convenience, for it provides enormous elasticity for our conduct while at the same time allowing us the periodic Puritanical thrill of condemning what we dislike. But this creates a recurring problem, for why should equality be “appropriate” and prejudice “inappropriate” when the goodness of social norms is hollowed out by the same differing experiences that putatively create cultural identity in the first place? Gordon Gecko’s motto, “Greed is good” might simply reflect Wall Street culture, where greed is appropriate. We might assume that postmodern desires for equality might be achieved by simply eliminating all inequalities, though why this effort should be any more “appropriate” for Wall Street than its present open maw is inexplicable in postmodern terms.

These postmodern influences have limited the dynamic meaning of “stereotyping” to unfavorable judgments about groups or their members based on their perpetuation of current power disparities. But this emphasis drags in the perfectly innocent word “categorization” simply because some valid categories do indeed perpetuate current power relationships simply by acknowledging their existence. For instance, complex societies require institutional hierarchies, and to recognize their necessity is far from defending the status quo. But we cannot distinguish legitimate from illegitimate applications of power without acknowledging that some institutions are just and good. We need these kinds of categorizations, and to use them is to discriminate in the most positive sense of the word. It is to get closer to the truth of things. The problem is that every biased jerk in the world tossing off insults about this or that group is convinced that he is merely explicating a valid categorization. The appropriate response seems to be to avoid any negative group categorization in the interests of social reform, but such efforts also stymie reform because they discourage empirical research into some of the social ills that produce the power inequalities reformers seek to ameliorate and the subsequent appeals to competence and expertise that would repair them (see “What Counts as Justification?“).

This kind of thing can get silly. A female professor is accused of being a “male hegemonist” for asking a boy to help two girls move a heavy table. A statistician is called elitist for citing income statistics of single-parent families in a sociological journal. A criminologist is called bigoted for analyzing the race of felony convictions. At the other extreme, this writer feels perfectly comfortable accusing Wall Street financiers of being greedy. What do we call stereotyping the powerful? How can stereotyping individuals ever be appropriate? Can we accept theories of social determinism for others while still considering ourselves free to make moral choices? Can the legal system make sense of this affront to responsibility?

Aristotle considered accurate classification the pinnacle of rational thought and thought it to be composed of close analysis of multiple and thoughtful exposures to individual representatives that we use to produce our conception of the class (see “The Tyranny of Rationality”). As some classifications are innocuous– all unmarried men have no wives– we may assume that our current abhorrence of stereotyping will still allow us some categorization. So are we limited only to those that may allow of no possible negative interpretation? On whose judgment: the speaker, the one characterized, or that phantom thing, the culture? Can criminologists condemn dropping out of school without also indicting dropouts? Should single parents feel slandered by census data compiled by demographers demonstrating material disadvantages to children of single-parent homes? An understanding of stereotyping would forbid any reader of those statistics to draw any conclusion about any particular household from these data-based conclusions, but is it appropriate to draw the categorical conclusions themselves, particularly if they point out some social cost?

The question of whether even valid categorizations of groups should be avoided or minimized for fear of lapsing into prejudice is a different one from whether these negative characterizations even if valid reveal anything about the individual members or the group. The latter issue is as easy to answer as the former is difficult. It is a blatant injustice to judge the individual by the group’s characteristics even if those characteristics are accurate for the group unless the group characteristics are definitive for each of its members and can be categorized for the aggregate without prejudice. To do otherwise is stereotyping. But must we also shy away from any investigation of group characteristics, perhaps just to be safe? Are we that prone to prejudice? To answer that question, we must explore one more element of why group characteristics are also so frequently poisoned by prejudice despite the concerted efforts of postmodernists to avoid it. What cultural pressure molds this kind of prejudice despite all the sustained efforts of the postmodernist push toward egalitarianism?

The dark energy that sustains group prejudices is from a much older influence, older than culture itself, indeed older than humanity, for it characterizes all social animals. This tribalism begins wholesomely with familial identification. Aristotle saw the blueprint of the political state in this first natural social unit, but he also devoted some attention in Politics to the difficulties of enlarging that unit from clan, the extended family, to city-state (see ‘The Moral Bullseye”). Our affiliation with family is as natural as the imprinting instinct of babies, but it requires some cultural pressure for that instinct to be broadened to strangers (see Natural Law and the Legality of Human Rights“). Virtue ethics finds the impetus for this extension of attachment in our needs (see “Needs Anchor Morality“). The child reaches for her mother for sustenance and the citizen reaches out to her polity for protection, civil order, education, opportunity for meaningful work, and so on (see “Natural and Political Rights “). Though these needs are natural and universal, they also require a rational consideration of the risk/benefit ratio of trusting strangers who are not driven by instinctual drives of protection and self-sacrifice. Our ambivalence toward the other is at the root of tribalism as tribalism as it is at the root of the group prejudices that demean and dehumanize. Cultural forces can fight these instinctual prejudices to a standstill, but only by relentless education generation after generation that establishes or demonstrates bonds among unrelated persons in polities that conduce in some explicable ways to their meeting their needs. Unfortunately, the group cultures so established are frequently held together by means of opposition to more distant cultures representing the other, and so the larger social or political group thus established is analogized to the natural unit, the family, and the alien culture is set up as the other. And so it goes, as sororities issue bids, urban neighborhoods mark turf, country clubs publish membership guidelines, religious organizations celebrate heritage, racial minorities taunt each other, fundamentalists debate God’s will, countries fracture along ethnic fault lines, and nations build patriotism by demonizing those across their borders (see “Which Clash of Civilizations?). If you leave out the family, all of this us-versus-them is cultural creation, though all of it is modeled on the instinctual tribalism that has the baby shrink away from the unfamiliar face. Every social identity produces an incentive to group prejudice if only because the essential nature of our categorization of the other sees him as different from our own. That instinctual dark mistrust can only be countered by continued efforts to humanize the other by enlarging our social and political self-identity to incorporate her. But the virtual circle orientation of postmodern phenomenology accomplishes exactly the opposite end, isolating by tribe or person based on cultural difference or private experience. What solidifies the alienation is the pernicious notion that reasoning is formed by experience rather than its interpreter (see “What Is the Virtual Circle?“). But that cultural hermeticism is wrong despite the endless proselytizing of today’s culture warriors (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems”). We can and do embrace strangers through familiarization (note the etymology) that is dependent on interweaving our efforts to satisfy our needs with those we might normally mistrust as strangers (see “Toward a Public Morality“). This effort has motivated some of the major world religions from the beginning, though the effort is perhaps honored more in theory than in practice as they have struggled with the alienating effects of heresy that have provided some of the most savage of tribal distinctions. Long traditions of religious animosity are partly the result of the perceived high stakes involved and partly forced by peculiar weaknesses of religious authority as a warrant for morality (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority”). More than a glimmer of hope for human progress can be found in the increasing scope of commercial webs of mutual interest over the last century and social networking of recent decades.

The effort to dehumanize the other is abetted by prejudicial categorizations that educated culture so discourages in the name of equality. But obviously more is involved than equality in both the problem and the solutions now being tried, which perhaps explains the current aversion to group categorizations in general. As much as I admire the egalitarian thrust of this effort, the cultural confusion engendered by the confusion of “stereotype” and “category” will only make the task more difficult.

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