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Stereotyping and the Decline of Common Sense By: Paul Hollander
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, July 19, 2002


According to a textbook in my possession, published in 1830 in this country entitled "Modern Geography" ("simplified and adapted to the capacity of Youth"), "The Afghans are a brave, fierce and warlike people ... distinguished for their hospitality..." By contrast "the French are polite, gay, active and industrious and celebrated for their proficiency in the arts and sciences." In turn "the Dutch are honest, patient and persevering and remarkable for their industry, frugality and neatness". Whereas "the Italians are affable and polite and excel in music, painting and sculpture but they are effeminate, superstitious, slavish and revengeful." The Russians are "hardy, vigorous and patient of labor but extremely rude, ignorant and barbarous."

As these examples make very clear nobody in those days was apprehensive about heavyhanded stereotyping, not even in a textbook for the young. It was not considered impossible or offensive to offer brief generalizations about group characteristics. Moreover, deep in his or her heart, even the most enlightened present day reader would have to admit that these terse characterization were not wholly without foundation. It is almost as clear today as it was in the early 19th century that the Dutch, for the most part, are quite unlike the Afghans and the French and Russians too when compared show some obvious and highly patterned differences, as do Swedes and Italians.

Group differences are not limited to those rooted in nationality: class and education too are associated with identifiable group differences. Truck drivers share traits found far less frequently among mathematicians and stockbrokers; the latter in turn would be difficult to confuse with professional musicians. There used to be a high concentration of individuals of Scandinavian origin among tugboat captains in New York harbor but not of those with a Jewish background. Asian-Americans excel in the sciences and engineering, African-Americans in sports — scandalous as it has become to say so in public. Of course each and every one of these and other groups share a common humanity which is the point of departure for a wide range of differences as multiculturalists like to emphasize.

Are such shared attributes vicious, degrading stereotypes or commonsense observations about certain traits, propensities, talents or interests some groups have in common? Stereotypes are widely held generalizations about groups; some accurate, some not; they often exaggerate certain attributes and ignore others. Such generalizations do not mean that every individual in a particular group possesses the widely perceived characteristics ascribed to the group but a greater probability that he will have them. Such and other generalizations are basic to human cognition: we tend to classify and group all kinds of phenomena — few things in this world, animate or inanimate, are totally unique or singular.

Stereotyping fell into bad repute because of the hate filled racial-ethnic labeling that justified the mistreatment and persecution in our times of groups including Jews, blacks, Indians, Armenians, gypsies — you name it.

None of this is a uniquely modern phenomenon: aversion toward the stranger, the outsider, variously defined (and often associated with the negative stereotypes) — is as old as human beings living in groups. But only in the last few decades has the practice become strongly condemned, indeed outlawed, but for the most part only in the West, one must hasten to add. Stereotyping in much of the non Western World remains a time-honored, taken-for-granted practice; the suggestion that Indians and Pakistanis or Chinese and Japanese, Chechens and Russians or Arabs and Israelis are fundamentally alike would earn incomprehension or a good laugh in those parts of the world these groups live.

At the same time it has been largely overlooked that a recently prominent trend in American society — namely multiculturalism — thrives on stereotyping. It insists that there are ineradicable differences among groups, (or the sexes) which are the sources of group identity, of ethnic, feminist or gay pride and identity politics. It is politically correct and praiseworthy to claim that certain groups have unique needs and attributes (which, for example educational institutions should respect and cater to) but totally inadmissible to suggest that certain groups may also share, along with their particular religious-political convictions, different propensities to commit violent acts of terrorism.

It is thus important to emphasize that the ban on stereotyping — central to political correctness — has been highly selective. White heterosexual males, corporate executives, evangelical Christians, housewives not interested in feminism, anti-abortionists and others can be openly stereotyped in highly unfavorable ways. Racism, sexism, homophobia, elitism, ethnocentrism have been freely and sweepingly attributed to such groups. These too are stereotypes, and especially venomous ones given the frequent claim that they are inherent and ineradicable.

Profiling or racial profiling is a form of stereotyping that rests on the assumption that members of some groups are more likely to commit crimes or acts of political violence than others. Such profiling has become a particularly pressing issue in the wake of 9-11 and the preventive measures it has inspired. Is it fair or reasonable to pay more attention at airports and elsewhere to people who belong to groups known to have a greater propensity to commit acts of terrorism than others, i.e. young males of Arab background and often, darker complexion? How many native born American old age pensioners, suburban mothers, or members of symphony orchestras have been among the known suicide pilots or bombers? Why to pretend that old ladies in wheelchairs have the same potential to be suicide pilots than physically fit, young males from Islamic countries?

The current procedure at airports and elsewhere is based on the ludicrous premise and pretense that the propensity and capability to carry out acts of terrorism are randomly distributed in the American population although everybody knows that this is not the case. This is why we see women with babies frisked and octogenarians' luggage carefully examined. Random searches of this kind are a colossal waste of time and resources. They are necessary only insofar as not everybody can be searched thoroughly thus some people have to be singled out. But the latter should not be a random procedure. What we need are intelligent forms of profiling that take into account the largest number of probable variables associated with acts of terrorism and the beliefs underpinning them.

The precipitous decline of common sense in our times, associated with a politically correct solicitousness toward some minorities was also revealed in the recent case of a Muslim woman in Florida who insisted on her right to wear the type of veil (niqab) that covered her entire face except her eyes in the photograph used in her driver's license. The picture, needless to say, is completely useless for the purpose it is supposed to serve, namely the visual identification of the driver. Upon the request of the Florida Dept of Motor Vehicles to provide a photo showing her entire face she and her lawyers argued (as reported in the NY Times, June 27) that "her religious beliefs dictate that she not reveal her face to strangers or men outside her family..." and the demand that she submit an unveiled photo "is subjective, unreasonable and violates her religious freedom as well as her right to privacy and due process." The demand that Muslim women be exempt from rules which apply to the rest of the population (i.e. be allowed not to have photos in their driver' license and presumably in other documents which reveal their face), illuminates the sharp conflict between politically correct multiculturalism and public safety and the routine, rational procedures of life in a modern, secular society. Presumably in an Islamic theocracy the problem would not arise since women are not allowed to drive.

Acceding to the request of this woman and her lawyers would be an unambiguous declaration of the supremacy of religious values over secular ones that would legitimize special treatment of groups even when it undermines public safety and equality before the law. Perhaps the time is not too far when other religious believers will discover that having a driver's license itself is a violation of their religious beliefs, while yet another group might find the requirement of signing such a document an intolerable infringement of their spiritual rights. And of course many Islamic groups find other practices prevailing in modern secular societies offensive, distasteful and irksome and would gladly take legal or other action to get rid of them.

The Florida case makes it clear that multiculturalism carried to its logical, politically correct conclusion is incompatible with the existence of a modern secular society in which the laws apply equally to everybody regardless their religious beliefs. By the same token the pretense that everybody flying, or hanging around nuclear power plants has an equal likelihood of committing terrorism is as absurd as to insist that no differences exist among the many human groups, or that members of particular social, national or ethnic groups have nothing in common. At the root of both of these beliefs we find the type of multiculturalism that harbors relentless hostility toward American society and Western values and extends sympathy to every group that questions or rejects these values.




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