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Stereotypes and Generalities

  • Date: 12/13/2003
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: UA Commencement (p.m.)
  • Let me tell you about one of the more evocative television commercials in recent history.

    The commercial was filmed in London in the mid-1980s for a prominent newspaper, and I will tell you about it in words written by John Steel. I quote:

    ". . . this commercial was shot in grainy black and white, more like a documentary than a commercial. With the exception of a simple voice-over, it is silent."
    (John Steel, Truth, Lies and Advertising: The Art of Account Planning, John Wiley & Sons, February 1998)

    "It opens on a slow-motion scene of a rough-looking skinhead sprinting down the sidewalk of a dull terrace in an old industrial town."
    (John Steel, Ibid)

    "A car slows menacingly at the end of the street, perhaps in pursuit. A woman, standing on her doorstep, flinches as the skinhead runs past her, and a calm, matter-of-fact voice-over says, ‘An event, seen from one point of view, gives one impression.'"
    (John Steel, Ibid)

    "We now see the same scene from a different angle. The skinhead darts past the woman, and this time we see that he's headed toward an old man, who is wearing a long overcoat and hat and carrying a briefcase."
    (John Steel, Ibid)

    "The old man raises his briefcase to defend himself as the thug makes a grab for him. The voice-over speaks again. ‘Seen from another point of view, it gives quite a different impression.'"
    (John Steel, Ibid)

    "The commercial fades to a third scene, another replay of the same action, but this time shot from high up on a building across the street."
    (John Steel, Ibid)

    "We see that right above the old man, who is completely oblivious to the fact, a large tray of bricks is being hoisted up the side of a building. It is swaying dangerously, and the skinhead has spotted it."
    (John Steel, Ibid)

    "He races down the street. The voice-over continues, ‘but it's only when you get the whole picture that you truly understand what's going on.'"
    (John Steel, Ibid)

    "The skinhead grabs the old man and pushes him back against the wall to protect him as the bricks crash to the sidewalk."
    (John Steel, Ibid)

    "The commercial fades to black, and the name of the newspaper appears, still in silence. ‘The Guardian, the whole picture.'"
    (John Steel, Ibid)

    It makes you think, doesn't it?

    And it makes you think precisely because until you had the whole picture, you could have been led to an erroneous and negative conclusion and, possibly, to an unfortunate or misguided action.

    This is instructive because constantly, in our modern age, we are bombarded with new information. Some of it is designed to make our lives better and easier, some helps us make intelligent decisions, and some is intended to sway our opinions or interest by various groups.

    Given our diverse backgrounds, ages and education...to say nothing about what we do or do not pay attention to...it is no surprise that each of us will digest this information differently. That's to be expected.

    At the same time, we need the benefit of multiple perspectives because too little information often creates the wrong perspective. That can foster untruths or, at best, create oversimplified generalizations that allow peer pressure and other external factors to dictate who, where and how we stereotype persons, places and things.

    Stereotyping, of course, "is one of (the) oldest human instincts." In fact, some of "The earliest records of stereotyping are (actually) Egyptian hieroglyphs about the Assyrians and Babylonians."
    (Tunku Varadarajan, "At Last! It's OK To Bash Away With Stereotypes," The Wall Street Journal, February 21, 2003)

    Even "The Greeks (stereotyped) all aliens as barbarians because they could not speak Greek..."
    (Tunku Varadarajan, Ibid)

    Sound familiar?

    Our own ancestors, the Pilgrims, who sailed to the New World to escape religious persecution in England, immediately stereotyped the Native Americans as savages.

    Stereotyping is often distasteful, and frequently serves to reveal ignorance. There's an old American proverb: those who constantly generalize "...learn less and less about more and more until (they) know nothing about everything."
    (A Dictionary of American Proverbs, Oxford University Press, 1992, p.248)

    And in today's complex environment, stereotyping has itself become stereotypical, sometimes taking on a nasty and all-too-simplistic role in our everyday activities.

    In fact, some have described stereotypes as the "...waste by-product(s) of the way the mind stores, organizes and recalls information...(Stereotypes) shape how we see ourselves and our values...and how we see ourselves as different from members of other groups."
    (Public Service Commission of Canada, "Stereotyping," Monograph Issue 3, Prepared by Robert Jelking and Emmanuelle Sajous, October 1995)

    "All groups make themselves feel better by looking down on other(s) . . ."
    (Tunku Varadarajan, Ibid)

    The word "stereotype" originated in the 1700s to describe a piece of equipment that was used in the printing process to duplicate copy.

    By the end of the 19th century, the term occasionally was used in its social sense, but it wasn't until 1922 that it was popularized as such by American Journalist Walter Lippman whose definition asserted that perceptions begin by creating mental pictures, or stereotypes.

    In his book, Public Opinion, Lippman wrote that "Each of us lives and works on a small part of the earth's surface (and) moves in a small circle. ...Of any public event, that has wide effects, we see at best only a phase and an aspect."
    (Walter Lippman, Public Opinion, Part III. Stereotypes, 1922)

    "Inevitably our opinions cover a bigger space, a longer reach of time, a greater number of things, than we can directly observe. They have, therefore, to be pieced together out of what others have reported and what we (construe from our imagination)."
    (Walter Lippman, Ibid)

    "For the most part," Lippman continued, "we do not first see, and then define; we define first and then see. In the great blooming, buzzing confusion of the outer world we pick out what our culture has already defined for us, and we tend to perceive that which we have picked out in the form stereotyped for us by our culture."
    (Walter Lippman, Ibid)

    Of course, we all try to fashion a mental picture of how we want others to see us. However, correcting an established stereotype can be difficult, particularly without the benefit of others understanding that multiple perspectives are often needed to get closer to the truth.

    Often, efforts are made to right these wrongful perceptions, particularly in those professions victimized by the movies' mistaken images, or caricatures that they create for the sake of entertainment. In education it is the "Mad Scientist" and the "Nutty Professor," among others, but each profession has its own list of caricatures promulgated by Hollywood.

    What is more, when a profession seeks to change its popular stereotype, it often finds that it changes for the worse and can end up undermining the original value of a profession.

    Without a doubt, it is much more difficult to fashion a positive image from a negative, than it seems the other way around.

    According to American Philosopher Eric Hoffer, "We are more prone to generalize the bad than the good. We assume that the bad is more potent and contagious." Never mind that it might not be bad in the first place.
    (Eric Hoffer, "Reflections on the Human Condition," 1973 as found in Cassell Dictionary of Contemporary Quotations, p.180)

    Most stereotypes are dictated by prejudice, which usually is formed from a single perspective. Even if not done maliciously, they can lead to the more destructive process of ethnic and cultural profiling which is used to justify discrimination and persecution.

    Some sociologists, in fact, contend that "...stereotyping reflects a power structure in which one group in society uses labeling to keep another group in its place."
    (Hutchinson Encyclopedia, on the Web 12/4/03)

    So, you see, preconceptions are usually misconceptions, and, like blinders on a horse or the different vantage points of the commercial we discussed earlier, they restrict our attention in ways that narrow our ability to see important aspects of our environment...to see the whole picture.

    I am confident that your experience at The University of Akron has helped you develop a fuller picture on life and given you new and expanded perspectives.

    As you now move on to the next chapter of your life, my hope is that you will treasure what you have learned, nurture it, and continue to learn some more.

    Your continued learning will create a better future for yourself and a better and fuller perspective of those around you.

    In the words of Walter Lippman: "It takes wisdom to understand..." And I fervently hope you will have the wisdom to not undermine that which you do not understand, as well as to not try to destroy that which you yourself cannot create.

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