Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Can There Be positive Uses For Stereotypes?

A former student Zac asked this one:

I usually think of racism, ethnocentrism, and bigotry in terms overly broad or incorrect generalizations, often applied to individuals or smaller subsets: "All white people are stupid. You are white. Thus you are stupid." But what happens when the generalization is a positive attribute. In the movie Syriana, I remember a character saying: "Arabs are very family-oriented. As a people. Is that racist?" Is it racist for me to say "Brazilian girls are beautiful." What about "Jews are very cheap" (I've heard that one used in many different ways). What if such a generalization is the result of a careful anthropological/sociological study, say, a National Geographic article? I guess I don't really have one question -- just confused.
So we've got two questions here: (1) If there are traits that tend to occur more frequently in a given group than the population at large, is there anything wrong with pointing that out? and (2) Is stereotyping inherently problematic or is it the oppressive use of stereotyping that is the problem. Would there be anything wrong with using the technique to advance social justice by associating a positive trait with an oppressed population?

(1) Surely, you will find traits, especially those that reflect community values, that will be found disproportionately amongst members of a given community than in the population generally. This is a fact of the world and there is nothing wrong with citing anthropological data, especially in an argument. But the question becomes moral when we ask what one is doing with the fact. If the fact is being used to justify malicious treatment, there's a problem but the problem is not with citing the fact. But these sorts of observations also let us see other ways of living and trying to determine how we can break out of our own socially enforced models to live better lives. I remember riding in a car with the head of technology for the school system on the Navajo reservation in Arizona and having this sort of conversation -- discussing what parts of Navajo culture would be good to incorporate into whitebread America and what parts of the usual American ethos would be a positive development if grafted onto rez life.

(2) But the problem is that groups occupy places in a social power structure and the question that we need to consider is whether, realistically, these facts are likely to be misused in justifying injustices that are a normal part of the distribution of social power. The desire to use it as a tool for social justice comes from a good place, but we need to consider what logicians call "special pleading." Any property that one tries to attach to a group and then spin as a virtue, can be used against the group when spun as a vice. They are an adventurous people -- no, they are foolhardy. They are a scholarly group -- no, they are nerdy bookworms. They are passionate -- no, they are irrational. They are enterprising -- no, they are crafty. The idea that we can fight negative stereotypes by replacing them with positive stereotypes is a nice one, but when those with the power get ahold of the work you do, they can easily turn the other blade of the double-edged sword against those you are trying to help. And because they start with the advantage, their characterization will most likely be the one to stick.

There is, of course, the further problem that very many people in the group will not the trait at all. By entrenching the stereotypes, even positive ones, these folks will be looked down upon even more for not only being a member of the oppressed group, but not even having "the redeeming quality" of "those people." And for those who do have the virtue, any successes, no matter how much of a challenge, that displays that virtue will be minimized because, "Well, you know they are just like that."

The idea that we could use a harmful tool for good is an admirable impulse, but my fear is that this case is going to be a loser, no matter how you slice it. But then, I'm just an out of touch philosopher up his ivory tower...