All stereotypes are based on the false notion that every member of a group necessarily shares the characteristics of all the others in that group. The most familiar stereotypes are the negative ones that plagued earlier generations: for example, “Italians are violent,” Blacks are lazy,” “Jews are greedy,” and “Poles are stupid.” Such negative stereotypes deny human individuality and malign whole groups of people for no good reason.
Today, most educated people understand that they should avoid negative stereotypes, but far fewer understand that positive stereotypes are equally harmful. And positive stereotypes are very much in evidence today due largely to the influence of Political Correctness and the artful manipulation of popular opinion by agenda-bearers.
Common positive stereotypes include the following:
Undocumented immigrants—impoverished people who seek only a better life for themselves and their children.
Homosexuals—people sexually attracted to their own gender who wish only the rights that heterosexuals enjoy, notably the right to marry whomever they choose.
Reproductive rights supporters—selfless individuals dedicated to safeguarding every women’s right to make her own health decisions.
Muslims—peace-loving people who differ from others only in their choice of a holy book, the Koran, and their acceptance of Mohammed as the prophet of Allah.
African-Americans—the primary victims of racism, whose social problems can be traced to the continuing discrimination in virtually all social institutions.
Political Progressives—elected officials and intellectuals tirelessly devoted to overcoming social injustice and achieving equity for all.
In the most obvious sense, positive stereotypes differ from negative ones in that, rather than denigrating particular groups, they insulate them from denigration. At first thought, that is all to the good. But a closer look reveals that positive stereotypes also insulate the groups from all criticism, even justified criticism.
The force of positive stereotypes is so great today that to raise a modest question about a positively stereotyped group or their actions—or even to hint at such a question—usually results in suspicion of one’s intentions, outright denunciation, or both.
For example, to suggest that the term “undocumented immigrant” is really a euphemism for one who breaks immigration law, or that many of the social problems plaguing African-Americans are caused by poor personal choices rather than discrimination, typically draws a charge of racism.
Similarly, arguing that abortion is seldom a matter of “women’s health” but instead a matter of convenience results in being branded an opponent of “reproductive rights”; wondering aloud how a religion that is as peace loving as Islam is described could produce so many terrorists will evoke the label “bigot”; and pointing out that homosexuality was historically associated with bathhouse promiscuity rather than monogamy will result in being demonized as a homophobe.
Nowhere is the strength of positive stereotypes more obvious than in today’s political arena. To be progressive (a term that liberals astutely embraced when the logic of liberalism was called into question) is to be decent, kind, and concerned for those in need. And anyone who would dare challenge that favorable definition—or take issue with even the smallest plank in the progressive platform—is typically considered a selfish, insensitive swine who deserves mistreatment by the I.R.S. in this life and eternal hellfire in the hereafter.
As these examples reveal, the irony of positive stereotypes is that they almost always lead to new negative stereotypes no less irresponsible and vile than the old “Italians are violent,” “Blacks are lazy,” “Jews are greedy,” and “Poles are stupid.”
The reason that both negative and positive stereotyping deserve to be rejected is that both do great harm, and not only to the people stereotyped, but also to those doing the stereotyping. As I explain in The Art of Thinking,
Stereotyping sets up a nice, neat mental warehouse for ideas. Everything has its own compartment. There is no comparing, no sorting, weighing, or selecting, just storage. Everything is presorted, predetermined, and prejudged. Thus, stereotyping impedes the mind’s dynamic activity, forcing life’s infinite variety, the myriad people and circumstances around us, into ready-made categories.
Simply said, both negative and positive stereotypes should be avoided because they stifle three things our country has never been more in need of—probing thought, careful distinctions, and meaningful discussion.
Copyright © 2013 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved
VINCENT RYAN RUGGIERO, M.A., is Professor of Humanities Emeritus, State University of New York, Delhi College. Prior to his twenty-nine year career in education, he was a social caseworker and an industrial engineer. The author of twenty-one books, his trade books include Warning: Nonsense Is Destroying America and The Practice of Loving Kindness. His textbooks include The Art of Thinking and Beyond Feelings, both in 10th editions and available in Chinese as well as English, Thinking Critically About Ethical Issues, and A Guide to Sociological Thinking. His latest book, Corrupted Culture: Rediscovering America’s Enduring Principles, Values, and Common Sense, is available at Amazon and in bookstores. Professor Ruggiero is internationally recognized as one of the pioneers of the Critical Thinking movement in education. Earlier in his career, he published essays in a variety of magazines and journals, including America, Catholic Mind, The Sign, The Lamp, and Catholic World.