Stereotyping: The Thief of Individuality

I've been looking for the words to convey my sickened dismay at the language used by current presidential hopefuls. Turns out I had found the words a few years ago. Stereotyping is deadly. Language is powerful. [Ed. Note: This piece originally appeared on Psychology Today, April 26th, 2010, and is republished below in full.]

"People hasten to judge in order not to be judged themselves."

Albert Camus penned these lines in 1956 in The Fall. What misery we propagate when we pre-judge others and curl up in this fake cocoon of superiority. Let's stop.

For over twenty years of college teaching, I have traveled through the written and verbal testimony of students abused by brand-name labels of a hideous sort. Dealing with pre-judgment and student revelations about either their complicity in hurt or their lingering angst as victims has been my challenge and my opportunity. Mexican, Arab, Lesbian, Jew, Tomboy, Sissy, Blue Collar, Gay, Muslim, Creole, Cambodian, Whitey and Blackey, Fatty and Boney, Atheist and Born-Again, Skinhead and Preppie, Welfare Recipient and Wealthy.... As soon as we pre-package individuals before we know them, drawing conclusions as if we know them, they shrink, become diminished, and are absolutely not worthy. The tomboy on the playground and the gay man at work are fair game for emotional and physical violence. What about the single father and the unmarried woman? Whew! At least I'm not one of them. Is there a way to combat this very human tendency? Yes. Understanding that our lightning-quick speed to judge others comes not from strength but rather from our own weakness and insecurity is a huge start. Such a humbling realization, if taken to heart, gives us the incentive to work on our own shortcomings and to put down the damning gavel.

What do you know about the individuals pictured here?
What do you know about the individuals pictured here?

We soon see more and more clearly that our harsh, mocking stereotypes substitute for a lack of self-respect. If you feel deep-down good about yourself, doesn't this approval transfer to others? My students think so. I know so. I have had the pleasure of seeing personal transformations, slow but sure, as philosophical analysis uncovers the root of hateful branding. An Ethics student in training for the Marines confided: "I'm learning Arabic. This morning I was practicing the language with a friend in the gym, and a Muslim man overheard us and spoke a traditional greeting of peace. He bowed. Before we started examining the stupid assumptions we make about people in our class, I would have turned away. Instead, I replied to him and bowed as well."

"I've had contempt for people covered with tattoos and piercings without knowing anything about their lives. I can't teach in challenging schools if I do not know my students," my bright and loving student (and a future teacher) admitted, now aware of a mistake that she can't afford in her career. A child philosopher many years ago echoed her point: A boisterous third grader exclaimed during a discussion of damaging labels: "At least let me give you a reason not to like me. There are tons of them." We laughed along with him, but he said it all. Treat me as an individual.

"Don't wait for the Last Judgment. It takes place every day," Camus laments in his novel. How about peeling the labels off others and getting to know ourselves? The good news? It's easier than permanent jury duty - that's one consuming job. Try this experiment that circles of philosophers continually find gratifying. Make a point of getting to know someone whom you would have stereotyped without your new awareness. Isn't it a relief? Sure, it's an endless, ongoing struggle; Camus recognized that the ugly penchant for casting judgment can and does eat at our hearts. Still. Would you rather create a problem or solve one? Meeting one person at a time. Catching ourselves one step at a time.

Our personal lives as well as local and international events provide all-too-many examples of the herding of individuals into groups for judgment. But two humorous and profound examples of the freedom gained by stripping off the labels come immediately to mind: I was reading Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree to first grade child philosophers, showing them the drawings on each page before turning to the next. In one picture, there are children hidden behind the tree with only their held hands visible in front. Lots of giggles and guesses as to which hands belonged to the boy and which to the girl broke out. And then this stunning remark: "It could be two girls or two boys, you know. After all, it is a new century." It was hard to keep reading and not throw a party!

And my all-time favorite exchange occurred just last week: Yet another college student was in the office to talk more about his new understanding of this "crazy need to label people and give everything a name." My shy student told me about his best friend whom he had been worried about because he seemed really depressed. Not wanting to pry, my student didn't ask any questions...for years; finally his friend volunteered the cause of his discontent. "Come to find out, he wasn't depressed. He said he had always felt he was a woman in a man's body." Well, I wondered, how did my student respond to this information? "I told him I would have been more surprised if he had confessed that he had bought a "Mac."