Stereotypes and prejudices
The dialogue aims to point out how people lump others together into various groups, and to draw attention to stereotyping, i.e. an unchangeable view of the members of these groups. In this respect, it is not the specific group selected or which group we have a relationship with that is decisive, but the procedure, ease and comfort of similar considerations which entice us to generalise individual experiences, be they ours or those of someone else. The dialogue also draws attention to methods of defending these attitudes and to the attempt to evade even justified arguments on the basis that we rank the situation or fact which is at variance with our own perception amongst the exceptions to the rules.
Stereotype: A stereotype is a monotonous, unchanging, habitual model of behaving and thinking. The most frequent manifestations of the stereotyping of another are discrimination and prejudice, i.e. a different behaviour shown to another person because of their membership in a certain group, be this group religious, national, ethnic, social, etc. Some authors take prejudices and stereotypes to be synonymous, while others define a prejudice as a negative stereotype. A stereotype may be positive (e.g. “the French are very elegant” or “people with glasses are intelligent”). Stereotypes are created on the basis of simplifications, exaggerations or contortions of the truth, and the generalisation and representation of certain cultural attributes as “natural” (e.g. “gypsies have vagrancy and irresponsibility in their blood and are never going to want to work”).
Generalisation: Generalisation is linked to stereotyping by virtue of an exaggerated lumping together of perceptions (most frequently the character of individual persons) which is not supported by sufficient experience or which is used in an unsuitable context.
Categories: The overall perception we have of the properties and character of certain groups, which we fall back upon in our conduct and behaviour.
Prejudice this involves the attribution of properties (usually negative) to people in advance without our knowing the people. Sometimes, a prejudice is defined as a negative stereotype. A prejudice contains a negative evaluation or assessment, and is the manifestation of a negative relationship.
Stereotypes find their provenance in the rationalisation of thinking and the attempt to orientate oneself in the world as quickly and effectively as possible. Every day, a person comes up against a large amount of information which they have to analyse and evaluate in the minimum amount of time, and then use as the basis on which to act as appropriately as possible given the situation in which they find themselves. A large amount of generalisation is necessary for this, as well as the ability to draw not only on experiences which a person has had but also events which they have recorded elsewhere. For this reason, fast categorisation is the standard means by which we think in the world, and by which we react.
Problems with stereotypes arise at the moment when we exaggerate this kind of conduct, and, in an attempt to lighten the demands on the brain, we generalise more than we should without the ability to reflect on our categories. We forget the specific conditions under which our preceding experience was valid and which are not met in the current situation, we link together a situation (experience) or certain signs which we have noted in certain people, which are not mutually connected, etc. Similar mistaken generalisations take place relatively frequently when we attempt to apply procedures which used to work for us, but no longer do. We become aware of our error on the basis of the unsatisfactory results of our attempt to generalise, and in other situations we then base our thinking more on concrete conditions occurring. In the case of stereotypical conduct towards people, specifically towards foreigners or various minorities, however, the situation is more complicated since there is no feedback – a person does not acquire information regarding the erroneousness of their conduct, and thus does not have the possibility of reflecting and learning from the error they committed. And so, our outlook is not changed, or rather we have the feeling that we acted correctly. We then continue to use the same procedures, and indeed we frequently expand our knowledge to other groups and categories which seem similar to us. In the case of ethnic groups, a large problem is the insufficiency of our personal experience with the members of these groups. The categories formed arise on the basis of solitary experiences, to which we add knowledge which we have picked up in the media or from friends. We lack the proper incentive to generalise correctly. The characteristics of individual people we then frequently incorrectly ascribe to an entire group/ethnicity on the basis of only partial knowledge or one single, specific experience – an example would be the assignment of the characteristic “criminal”, the category “refugee”, etc.
Stereotypes and especially ethnic prejudices are often accompanied by a strong emotion which is contained in the individual categories – we feel the category of “Gypsy/Roma” differently than the category of “French person”. The emotion linked with the category is subsequently manifest in attitudes and our conduct to the members of the group in question.
Our environment, friends and the people close to us have a large influence on the creation and reinforcement of our categories. The environment in which a person grows up usually creates their scale of values and the opinion of life by which they subsequently abide. As well as our immediate family, the attitudes of our friends and acquaintances, with whom we share similar experiences, plays an important role. These participate in the creation and maintenance of our categories.
Because of the process by which they come into being (derived from events which we have either experienced or, for instance, seen on television, a reflection of the opinions of those close to us), stereotypes are very stable. It is difficult to change them or get rid of them. This is helped by the fact that the fixed nature of the categories offers us a certain feeling of security by virtue of offering an organised and consistent picture of the world and an interpretation thereof. Therefore, the impulse to change a category has to be such a strong experience that it completely fails to correspond with our opinion/category up till now, leaving us no option but to modify it in some fundamental way or cast it aside. In other cases, when the confrontation is not so strong, there is a selection of phenomena or facts which fit into the proposed schema – people like and sometimes even look for information which corresponds to their stereotype, only in order to confirm it. Whatever does not correspond to the given schema is overlooked and ignored, even if frequently unconsciously.
How should we deal with stereotypes? Obviously, the aim is not to get out of the habit of thinking in categories – this is very important for survival. However, for the correct utilisation of the ability to think in categories, it is essential to keep the category under control and to reflect constantly upon its contents.
The dialogue draws attention not only to the erroneousness and simplicity of specifically lumping people together, but also to the inadequacies which thinking in excessive generalisations involves. The specimen group is the relatively non-conflictual category of blondes, which adds some lightness to the dialogue. However, at the same time it allows us to point to the absurdity of certain categories and signs which are selected during the creation of a category or regarded as fundamental (in this case, the colour of hair), without this being the case in reality. In this case, it is not the group itself which is decisive – it could be swapped quite easily for another (e.g. an ethnic or religious group) – but the approach to the problem in question and errors in attitudes. The dialogue also reacts to and points out two accompanying phenomena which appear in connection with stereotypes. The first is a certain form of protecting “one’s own” stereotype, or the effort to maintain at all costs an already-formed category throughout life. As already mentioned, a change of stereotype is a very demanding process which takes place only in the case of genuinely profound experiences. However, people usually look for any possible methods, however circuitous, to defend what they believe in and are convinced of. This leads to the creation of the institution of the “exception”, which then allows a person in a concrete situation to effectively disburden themselves of the duty to explain or justify their attitude towards a person who contradicts the stereotype being used. This leads not only to the maintenance of the category in question, but to a reinforcement of the conviction that it is correct, by which mechanism it then becomes, for all intents and purposes, impregnable.
The second sign which accompanies stereotyped methods of thinking and supports a uniform identification of certain categories and their signs (however erroneous they may be) within society is the joke. The effect of a joke on the maintenance and reinforcement of stereotypes is very strong. A joke primarily helps to expand upon stereotyped opinions and attitudes towards certain groups, but above all confirms the allocation of certain signs to these categories (e.g. that blondes are simple). This leads basically to corroboration of the stereotype, regarding which there is now no need to have any doubts – it actually leads to the creation of a prejudice. The category/group in question is moreover completely made fun of for a certain characteristic (most frequently relating to the character of properties of the group in question) and can only respond to the situation which has arisen with great difficulty. The dialogue aims not only to point to this aspect of the stereotype, but also to provoke the reader into thinking about the feelings of those who are ridiculed in this fashion.
An example of such a stereotype could, for instance, be Tim, and above all his father. As a Dutchman, he is often regarded by those around him as “the rich guy”. And the others thus react not only to him, but also to the entire family. They are well off, don’t have to concern themselves with material things and can travel abroad whenever they want.
Only a closer knowledge of Tim’s family environment allows us to peer behind this shell. They have to pay a mortgage like everyone else, but what is more they have a worse interest rate, because foreigners are regarded by the bank as more risky. If the family wants to maintain relations with family and friends in Holland, it must incur disproportionate expenses on travel or telephone calls. However, such travelling is only the same as an ordinary Czech family going to visit their relatives. It is certainly not about some exotic far-flung beach.
In short, Tim’s family are not better or worse off than anyone else. But even so – his dad’s a Westerner, so he’s loaded!
Only a closer knowledge of Tim’s family environment allows us to peer behind this shell. They have to pay a mortgage like everyone else, but what is more they have a worse interest rate, because foreigners are regarded by the bank as more risky. If the family wants to maintain relations with family and friends in Holland, it must incur disproportionate expenses on travel or telephone calls. However, such travelling is only the same as an ordinary Czech family going to visit their relatives. It is certainly not about some exotic far-flung beach. In short, Tim’s family are not better or worse off than anyone else. But even so – his dad’s a Westerner, so he’s loaded!
Allport, G., W. (2004). O povaze předsudků (On the character of prejudices). Praha: Prostor.
„Stereotypes“. cit [06-04-28] Dostupné z <http://www.systemsresearch.cz/Lippmann_stereotypy.pdf>
„Stereotypy a předsudky“ (Stereotypes and prejudices). cit [06-04-28] Dostupné z <http://www.varianty.cz/cdrom/podkapitoly/b01obecnatemata/15.pdf>