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The Surprising Truth about Generalizing and Stereotyping


In the context of what we are talking about today, generalizing is a conceptual process whereby common properties of the individuals comprising a group are identified and then formulated in order to make a general claim about the group.  A stereotype is a generalization about the members of a group.  It is often a widely held impression or belief relative to a type of thing.  In today’s world, generalizing and stereotyping is generally considered to be a bad, ignorant and even shameful thing to do.  It is not politically correct.  For more information about this, you should watch my video titled: Political Correctness.  But today, I’m going to explain why the baby of generalizing shouldn’t be thrown out with the bathwater of generalizing.

The mind identifies patterns and it groups things together.  It works rather like a computer in this way.  In many ways, this helps you to make quick decisions and survive.  So here is painful truth #1:  You may think and say that you are capable of not generalizing and that you never stereotype, but actually your brain can’t not do it.  It is designed to do it.  The truth is really just that you don’t support prejudice or discrimination or ignorance.  Maybe you’ve been on the receiving end of the hurt caused by generalizing and prejudice.  So you say things like “I don’t see color, only people” or “to generalize is to be an idiot” or “I don’t believe in stereotypes”.  The problem is, your mind does.  So you spend your time denying commonalities and identifying exceptions so you are nothing like those shameful, hurtful, ignorant people who you don’t want to have anything to do with.

Seeing patterns and commonalities that exist within the members of a group create expectations.  For example, if you see someone die because of being bitten by a red, yellow and black snake, you’re going to quickly generalize that red, yellow and black snakes are lethal.  This (just like any expectation) is both a good thing and also not such a good thing.  Good because you are more likely to survive if that yellow, black and red snake is a coral snake (which is poisonous) and because of your generalization, you don’t touch it.  Not so good because if that yellow, black and red snake is a king snake (which is not poisonous) and you flip out and kill it, it will be for no good reason.  Here is a list of generalizations so you can get the idea:

Superheroes wear capes

Snakes bite

It snows in the winter months

Men are stronger than women

Asians are awesome at math

Potatoes have brown skin

Jews are greedy

Babies can’t walk

Humpback whales give birth in Hawaii

Blacks are poor

You have ulcers if you have stomach pain, weight loss, nausea, heartburn and dark, tarry stools

Homework is hard

Criminals come from troubled backgrounds 

Americans are loud and arrogant

Dogs are nicer than cats

Family is always there for you

Teens are rebellious

If you want to be successful you have to go to college

Pretty girls are bitches

Everyone can heal

Oh… and my favorite… Generalizations are false.

If you want to enhance your own awareness, I ask you to stop this video and truthfully make a list of the generalizations and stereotypes that you hold, especially the ones you have formed because of personal experience, before continuing with the rest of this episode.

What you should have noticed about the examples of generalizing is that most people only care about generalizing or stereotyping when they perceive it to hurt themselves or someone else. You will have felt a cringy emotional charge relative to some of these examples and not others.  We can all come up with stereotypes that we feel are mostly true despite there being some exceptions and we can all come up with stereotypes we feel are unfair or untrue.

Generalization is a conceptual tool.  It is a tool that can be quite beneficial and can be quite detrimental, therefore it is a tool that should be used with caution instead of thrown out. Generalizing is one of the principal measures by which knowledge proceeds.  It allows us to identify and recognize commonalities and therefore patterns within a group.  Generalizations can be thought of as a polarity to individuality and difference.  A spiritual teacher or philosopher could argue that generalizations and the recognition of same-nesses are less egotistical than individuality and difference because the ego is after all the ‘sense of separate self’.  I bet none of you who consider yourself to be against generalizing and stereotyping see yourselves as having much stronger egos.  The reality is that you are different in some ways and in other ways, exactly like others.

Without generalization, we could never talk about commonalities, trends, tendencies or patterns and all three are critical when it comes to awareness.  It is as important when it comes to awareness to identify commonalities, trends, tendencies and patterns as it is to be aware that there are exceptions.  For example, it is important to see the reality of “I am avoidant of intimacy” based off of the common behavioral trend that you exhibit from day to day.  Not to say, “actually last Tuesday I shared how I felt with my wife, so It isn’t true that I’m intimacy avoidant… that’s a generalization”.  It is important to see generalizations such as “Christians value modesty” so you don’t go to the deep south and strip down to a bikini cause it’s hot and wonder why everyone is looking at you with disgust.  It’s important that we can see patterns such as “blacks are poor” even if there are some black people who are extremely wealthy.  Why?  Unless we recognize the commonality in the first place, we will not look into the why behind it or even see it as a societal issue in the first place.  I also chose this last highly triggering example specifically to make you aware of how a stereotype or generalization may be something that we fight against in one minute and demand that others accept, the next.  For example, if it’s a normal day and a white person walks into a fancy restaurant and thinks “why the hell is a black person in here, cause they are poor”, people will fight against that stereotype because it’s ignorant.  But if it is a day that the government puts an economic law into place that effects low income citizens, and therefore the black demographic, harder people will fight for the public to accept the stereotype that blacks are poor, so as to highlight the injustice and doing so is suddenly considered educated.

People also tend to fight stereotypes with stereotypes.  For example, one person could say “Women are terrible drivers”.  And someone might say “Men don’t let women drive when a car is a shared asset and they criticize women when they drive, both of which leads to a loss of confidence behind the wheel and less practice.”  Both arguments are in fact examples of stereotyping.

All generalizations and stereotypes exist for a reason.  The question is what reason?  I didn’t say they all exist for a good reason or because they are all right.  For example, the stereotype that Latino people are super family oriented exists because culturally, they believe that the family is both the source of identity and also of protection against hardship and so they act like it.  The stereotype that witches worship the devil exists because the early Catholic/Christian churches wanted to enforce cultural control by turning citizens against (and justifying their punishment of) women who did not conform to their ideals of womanhood.    Some stereotypes are false.  Some have been intentionally created despite inaccuracy to cause harm.  But many stereotypes are in fact accurate assessments of the commonalities, trends, tendencies and patterns.  It is not particularly aware to say that stereotypes are bad and wrong.  The bottom line is, to be truly aware, you need to be able to see patterns in yourself and patterns in groups of people too, not just individual patterns.  You need to see BOTH.

Generalizing and Stereotyping have a bad reputation for good reason.  If you look at the etymology of the word stereotype, it is: “Firm or solid impression”.  This is where you can get into trouble with generalizing and stereotyping.  Where there is firmness and solidness, there is a risk for a disowning of flexibility and openness.  Not being aware that there are exceptions and differences can make you unaware and closeminded.  It is not that generalizations are un true.  It is that they can open you up to the danger of making one story the only story.  And that can hurt you and everything else around you.

Generalizations and stereotypes can open the door for pain, ignorance, discrimination, prejudice, the justification of injustice, enabling, the destruction of relationships, and the stifling of individual freedom and success. In fact, there is a thing called a “stereotype threat”.  If you have tattoos and you show up at a conservative party and you know that the people around you hold a negative stereotype of people with tattoos such as “immoral, promiscuous, unprofessional and dangerous”, you will be afraid of inadvertently confirming that stereotype. It will aversely effect your confidence and make you defensive and unfriendly (thus perpetuating the stereotype).

The main thing that is causing you to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to generalizing and stereotyping is that you don't want people to fail to see, hear, feel and understand you and your individual reality or truth because they have simply assumed you fit with a pattern.  You don’t want to be judged by those who you have decided don’t know you well.  You feel hurt when your complexity is denied and you are robbed of your rich, nuanced, uniqueness.  You want to be known.  You want others who you identify with to be known.  You also don’t want to see other people (or beings or things) suffer from not being known.  A person who loves sharks and is therefore identified with them, has a real problem when people make sweeping generalizations about sharks.  All this boils down to the fact that if you detest the idea of generalizing or stereotyping, you perceive that if a person does not recognize differences that do or can exist, that there will be painful consequences for you or them, or something involved.  And there very well might be.

Contrary to popular opinion, generalizing and stereotyping is an essential and natural feature of your mind.  It is not a cultural, unnatural glitch in your mind.  If you did not have this natural feature, you could not think things like “Japanese people speak Japanese” and so you would go to Japan and start speaking to someone on the street in your own language.  You would not think things like “babies aren’t strong enough to hold the weight of adults” so you might roll over on one and wonder why it died.  You would not recognize things like “I am an addict” and so, you would never face that addiction you have head on.  We need to be able to discern the accuracy or inaccuracy of a general statement rather than to say that all general statements are untrue because they are general.

We need to develop the capacity to accept the truth of a generalization or stereotype, even if and knowing that it is not the whole truth or nothing but the truth and exceptions exist.  Otherwise, we are throwing awareness away for the sake of a sense of our own personal goodness and rightness.  An aware person generalizes but with the awareness that there are exceptions and differences.  They can make a statement such as “Jelly Fish Sting” without that implying that all jellyfish of every type and everywhere always sting humans that they come into contact with.  The stereotype is still true without it being the whole truth with no exceptions.  Generalizations can be inaccurate and harmful.  Conversely, they can also be accurate and useful… A critical tool for learning, comprehension and communication.  Therefore, question your generalizations and the why they exist.  And make your generalizations flexible instead of being determined to not make them at all.  And never forget, the wise words of Mark Twain, “All generalizations are false, including this one”.






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