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The Multiple Ways to Criticise Stereotyping

12 February 2018

Do you assume that the person wearing the uniform in the shop is a shop assistant, that the teacher enjoys the company of children, or that the vegan has a good level of self-control? It is widely accepted that thoughts like these that associate individuals with features due to their membership of social groups—i.e. stereotypes—are not only commonplace but they can be useful. The application of stereotypes sometimes enables human beings with limited time, information and computing capacities to quickly and efficiently form true beliefs and successfully navigate our complex social environments. However, stereotypes also often lead to misperceptions and misunderstandings. It is crucial that the bad cases can be distinguished from the good ones.

Take the following. At the launch of his bid to be president in June 2015, Donald Trump made the following claims about people who emigrate from Mexico to the United States of America:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us [sic]. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

Here Trump is stereotyping: associating members of a social group, in this case Mexicans, with features, i.e. drug use, criminality and being rapists, in virtue of their membership of the group. This stereotyping has great potential to lead to misperceptions and misunderstandings about Mexican immigrants. These misperceptions and misunderstandings can be deeply harmful, divisive and damaging.

How it is possible to distinguish bad cases like these from good cases? In which cases is it right to criticise acts of stereotyping because they are likely to lead to errors?

One natural thought is that stereotypes are only likely to lead to misperceptions and misunderstandings if the stereotype that is applied is inaccurate. To be successful in criticising an act of stereotyping on this view it is necessary to show that the stereotype that is applied misrepresents reality.

This will often not be easy. It will not do to find a single member of a social group who does not have the stereotypical feature because stereotypes are not meant to apply to every single member of a group (even Trump qualifies his claim about Mexicans). According to one popular view of stereotypes, for instance, they are what Sarah Jane Leslie, Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University, calls generics, similar to the claim that “ducks lay eggs” or “mosquitoes carry the West Nile virus”. Generics are not universal claims but imply that members of the group typically possess a trait, characteristically possess a trait, or that it is striking that they possess the trait. A stereotype could therefore be accurate as long as members of the group typically possess the traits, characteristically possess the traits, or even if only a minority of members of the group possess the traits but it is strikingly good or bad that they do so.

Without decisive reason to favour another models of stereotypes, it would be necessary to show that a group neither typically, characteristically nor strikingly displays a feature in order to show that a stereotype associating the group with the feature is inaccurate. To achieve these goals it will often be necessary to have a good deal of information about the statistical distribution of traits across a population, for example, drug arrests across ethnic groups. But even if this information is gathered it will be challenging to establish, for example, if the information shows that members of the group typically or characteristically possess the stereotypical feature or not.

On the basis of these observations it might seem to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to establish of very many acts of stereotyping that they will lead to misperception and misunderstanding. However, this only seems to be the case as long as it is assumed that it is necessary to establish that a stereotype is inaccurate in order to show that the application of the stereotype will lead to misperception and misunderstanding. It is this assumption that is challenged by my multifactorial view of stereotyping.

According to this view, there are numerous features of any act of stereotyping that determine whether or not it is likely to lead to misperception or misunderstanding and therefore numerous features to consider when deciding if an act of stereotyping is likely to lead to misperception and misunderstanding. Here I will outline a few of these features.

First, is the stereotype that is applied relevant in the context in which it is applied? Psychological and sociological studies suggest that stereotypes are often applied when they are irrelevant, for example, because the person who engages in stereotyping has their ego threatened or there is a threat to the status quo. One case of this type would be a police officer stopping a Black driver for a minor traffic violation, e.g. broken headlights, but being unsatisfied with the speed with which the driver responds to his instructions. Studies suggest that if the police officer feels a threat to his authority he will be likely to stereotype the driver, applying the stereotype of Black people as criminals, associating him with criminality and treating him with hostility. In this type of case it does not matter whether or not the stereotype is accurate, the application of the stereotype increases the chance of an individual being misperceived because it is irrelevant.

Second of all, does the stereotype prevent information about an individual from being properly accessed and processed? Psychological and sociological studies highlight a variety of ways that the application of a stereotype can lead to distortion of the information about the individual to whom the stereotype is applied. For example, one might only notice information about a person that is consistent with a stereotype about their social group. Or one might not listen to or take seriously the testimony of someone who is stigmatized as a result of the application of a negative stereotype, thereby missing important information that they would otherwise provide. In each case, one would be more likely to misperceive another person due to lacking of information about them as a result of stereotyping. And this could occur whether or not the stereotype that is applied is accurate.

Stereotypes can therefore lead to misperception and misunderstanding regardless of whether the stereotype that is applied is accurate. Multiple factors must be considered when evaluating whether the application of a stereotype will produce these negative consequences because there are multiple ways that stereotypes can operate to cause misperceptions and misunderstandings. This complicates the process of identifying bad cases of stereotyping. But it also provides a way to criticise acts of stereotyping without the person engaging in the criticism being required to produce evidence that the stereotype is inaccurate.

Picture Mary Jackson (Engineer) working at NASA in 1980. By NASA Langley Research Center [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


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