#007 There Must Be More To Life, Than Stereotypes
The Marginalization & Pigeonholing of the Individual
“Attempting to get at truth means rejecting stereotypes and clichés.”
(Harold Evans, International Journalist)
What really makes an individual? I think it’s a person free to make their own decisions, put forward their own unique character, form and communicate their own opinions and prioritise their own goals over popular social norms and ambitions. An individual is the culmination of every physical and personality trait that makes up a human being.
Throughout many years actively exploring ideas, one thing I have found to frequently reoccur, is the desire for people to pigeon hole free expression, in order to make sense of and often to more easily denigrate, other people’s thoughts and comments. From what I have seen, this has generally had the effect of marginalising, casting aside and writing off of opposing points of view, and I think it can be viewed at best as lazy, or time-saving, and at worst ignorant and detrimental to intellectual progress in that it allows an individual to avoid confronting and engaging with another’s perspective in any realistic or meaningful way.
In my case this has ranged from being shelved a ‘Marxist-Leninist’ for mentioning the labour theory of value, to being labelled an ‘anarchist’ for criticising the validity of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, for ‘subscribing blindly to a Kantist view of morality’, for criticising Winston Churchill on his views on the mentally impaired, an ‘audiophile’ for showing interest in sound resolution and a ‘libertarian’ for commenting on the value of free expression. Similarly I have watched many others be subjected to pigeonholing of this type, not least in the comment sections that reside below online articles. Here people are labelled communists, feminists, fascists, racists, misogynists, lefties, Tories, scroungers, shirkers, capitalists, druggies and so on, as a result of underlying aims to segregate people, one way or another, and to promote a two dimensional, simplified analysis & judgement on another’s views and character. This often acts to curtail equal and balanced dialogue and the discussion often descends into unproductive ad hominem based diatribe.
The fact that people choose to assert abstract & loaded labels like these onto others so frequently, indicates to me that there is more going on than merely the use of language to label ideas (often expressed through ‘isms’). Could it be, as a society, rather than truly treating people as individuals with individual thoughts and ideas, we are stereotyping thoughts and ideas, from relatively small pieces of information, as a cheap stand in for real insight?
Take a look at the photo below I took of a sign someone had chosen to place on his or her front door. This in my view is a clear example of stereotyping as the sign basically assumes all people who identify with Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness faith ideas, are basically of the same kind, type or ilk, and so, based upon this stereotype, the person who lives here believes it is reasonable to communicate that this type of person is unwelcome here. The sign assumes a two dimensional view of all Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons and the creator seems confident enough in this view to avoid having it tested by interacting with more (or any) people of these faiths, and instead is choosing to actively discourage these people from knocking at their door for any reason. This of course means there is less chance for this view to be challenged or undermined, by an individual belonging to one of these faith groups, calling in and offering the residents something worthwhile. I think this case highlights a tendency for people to opt out of interaction, and possible confrontation, in favour of a kind of distanced ignorance, built on propagated & popularised stereotypes. The mere fact the writer didn’t bother to even write ‘Witness’ or spell ‘Mormon’ properly further demonstrates the lazy ignorance and careless attention to detail associated with this kind of people genrification.
My point here is that by stereotyping, we alter our own perception, and therefore our own reality, away from dealing with objective truth, of whatever form it may take. Even if one hundred Jehovah’s Witnesses came to this door and wasted the sign maker’s time, the hundred and first may still offer something amazing, so an absolute stereotype cannot possibly hold true and at best offers a crass generalisation, one which almost always serves to close our minds rather than open them. The obvious example, that’s long been a hot political topic in Britain, is immigration, where immigrants from specific countries or parts of the world, are somehow seen as possessing some universal characteristic, which serves to distance and alienate them from some mythical universal characteristic that all British people possess. What I am arguing for instead is for all people, and all the points they choose to make, be considered on their own individual merits, set apart from this dangerous habit to contort reality through some kind of subjective human archiving system.
In my view ideas and opinions generally benefit most by remaining in a constant state of change, by constantly being re-examined and updated, rather than becoming fixed, and opening themselves up to a wealth of critique. All ideas are the same in this regard, until (if possible) they can be proven as fact. Equally unfair attempts to pigeon hole a person or their idea(s), so that one can oppose them more easily, is detrimental to social progress as it ignores highly nuanced individuality, whilst at the same time frequently fuelling unconstructive conflict, as the target feels threatened, victimised or marginalised and naturally reacts.
Noam Chomsky famously stated, “If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don’t like”, meaning it is right in a free society to allow all voices to be heard, so that they can be responded to in a reasonable manner. By aiming to marginalise people we disagree with, through stereotyping, either based upon an individual’s opinions or their physical attributes, such as their ethnicity or gender, we in turn perpetuate misguided and over-simplified understandings of a given group or collective, as well as reinforcing the fallacious idea of collective identity in the applied sense.
There is no reason for instance why every single person born or living in one geographical area, will share one common trait, populations are simply far too diverse. National or collective identity merely represents commonalities between certain individuals, rather than a blueprint to use as a basis for understanding any individual or collective, as comforting or handy as they may be. Nationality tells us only where an individual currently lives or was born, and nothing more. This principle extends to pigeon holing of all types, the term ‘atheist’ can only mean someone with a lack of belief in a god or gods, ‘lesbian’ can only mean a woman who is attracted to other women, ‘football fan’, someone who enjoys watching football and ‘fantasy fan’ can only mean, someone with an interest in fantasy fiction. A feminist is simply someone who supports and/or advocates equal rights for women, not a seventies, unhygienic man hater as the commonly held stereotype would have you believe. Equally a Daily Mail reader is merely someone who reads the Daily Mail for any reason, not some bigoted, conservative traditionalist living in the Home Counties, and so on.
The more we oppose or disagree with another’s views, the more pertinent Chomsky’s point becomes, it is easy to write someone off as a racist, misogynist or speciesist for instance, narrowly assuming every view they have or will express will conform to a stereotype and is therefore worthless. It is more difficult to challenge and engage with a person’s view individually, highlighting specific points of contention and explaining how and why they are flawed, however this is ultimately more worthwhile. It allows us to better understand another point of view, regardless of how right or wrong we feel it to be, and it allows the other the opportunity to hear constructive criticism, which may help them in future endeavours, if they are willing to listen.
In this age of rising inequality, with on going tensions between different parts of society, it is now more critical than ever to favour and advocate individual insight above broad generalisation, so that real problems can be properly identified and addressed. Points of contention and disagreement are not necessarily etched in stone, and only through this mental conflict can we hope to achieve mental progress, where a kind of idea natural selection means weaker arguments die away and stronger ones gain traction. The challenge is to be aware of this and realise what may seem like a defeat (based on pride & ego) is actually a success, because we have gained insight, which has had the effect of strengthening our own positions.
In doing so we can gain new respect for the other, free from backward facing bigotry, whilst simultaneously promoting the value of socialised dissent, dialogue and collective progression through individual interaction.