Wednesday 27 August 2008

Those bad, bad stereotypes

In contemporary society stereotyping is bad form.

Every age has its spectres, and to paraphrase an old saying (an old stereotype?), you shall be known by the company you don't keep.

Yet generalisations are useful; in fact, without our ability to generalise about a situation life can be downright dangerous.

Imagine you want to cross a road. Wouldn't it be prudent to generalise about cars as being potentially deadly and never mind the specific disposition of these particular drivers and their vehicles?

Assigning any act to some nether region does not abolish the act, it merely hides it from view. Demagogues find this hard to understand and so proceed to elevate their fears to a degree of substance they initially did not possess.

Demonising the stereotype follows a similar track. Rather than producing a people of wisdom and sound judgment the content of generalisations lives under the surface, and its features are hardly touched upon.

Our mind is a pattern-seeking and identifying system par excellence. Its neuronal hardware does not so much define the re-representative content of incoming information, rather it uses it for the emergence of chaos-type states that define themselves in terms of their affinities with each other. Since it is also a highly distributive system related clusters are formed very quickly across the relevant sections of the network.

What these clusters mean to us is a function of their relatedness to previous states, and not dependent on their actual information value as such.

The more fundamental the re-representative regions are the faster the result. The term social cognition refers to our innate ability to form judgments on people within seconds, using facial traits and overall appearance. A useful introduction to such material can be found on the live science page.

Of course, recognising people for their potential positive or negative effects on us has been a necessary ability for over millennia; no wonder we have become so good at it.

A corollary to the process is the preordained pattern already formed at the moment of the current process. We don't make judgments - rightly or wrongly - without already having been exposed to some data that had been able to generate the patterns we now use to once again categorise what is new. It doesn't always work. Just because we have been hit by three red cars in a row does not mean every single read car is about to converge on us. On the other hand, how valid are the reasons for completely dismissing such a possibility? The pattern recognition facility is not about the comprehensive identification of content, it allows us to respond precisely because we don't know everything there is about a given situation. And if we do err we do so on the side of caution.

We stereotype people. Polite company excepted of course (another stereotype!) but despite an era of political correctness jokes about national traits are ever so popular. Want to know some about Europeans?

At this point there would not be too many readers who fire off an angry email. So instead of Europeans let's exchange the word for Indigenous People. Still comfortable?

The readiness to recognise generalisations as generalisations and nothing more depends on the ability to abstract. We can laugh at a joke because we know it is a caricature, not to be taken too seriously. Not everyone shows such largesse.

One measure of the degree of abstraction at work is the act of self-proclaiming. There are those who define themselves in terms of their own assessment as an individual, and there are those who see themselves as the representative of a collective. If the response by their social surrounds proceeds likewise (ie, judging them in terms of such a collective) it will either be met with approval if its nature is on the positive side but met with anger if it is not. Yet in principle that response had been exactly in line with the portrayal of themselves. The anger emerges because abstraction had been largely absent.

Suppressing innate functions never works. A far better approach is to allow them the light of day so that they may be examined for what they are.

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