What makes a stereotype a stereotype?

Continuing the discussion from Girl's Life v Boy's Life: "Do you Know When to Shut Up" vs "Jokes to impress"):

For those just joining the conversation, it’s essentially a debate about what makes a stereotype a stereotype, and what kinds of judgements should be referred to as such. There’s some disagreement, but it’s a bit of a fuzzy one (in my opinion). I’m not how interesting of a discussion it is, but I wanted to come to a better conclusion (from either side of the debate) before moving on with my life :stuck_out_tongue:

I think the discussion started to become a bit sour (also my fault) and so I felt it worth while splitting this off into a separate discussion (first time using the feature, I thought, why not?).

I felt that I could probably better explain myself, with the hope of adding clarity, as I don’t think my position is very black/white and could do with a bit more context.

It all started with this comment:

Now as it happens I don’t think that the content of this comment is that debatable, as both of the examples provided by ‘Mister44’ are ugly characterisations (although I’m not sure I’d agree that Republicans eating babies is a stereotype, per se) - but at the same time it rubbed me up the wrong way, as I feel there are fundamental differences between organisational characteristics and personal stereotypes (this is where a semantics argument came in, which apparently didn’t go down well - but I also think it’s the apex of the disagreement).

I previously used an example which was distractingly inflammatory, which I feel hurt my point more than helped it:

And rightly so, as I say, I think this was a poor example - although still debatable, it’s emotive and extreme and dividing, distracting.

I’d like to present a slightly different argument in the hopes that my point has more clarity.

If one were to assume that any given Christian felt that homosexuality was a sin, you could argue that was an outmoded viewpoint, that Christians have moved on from that outlook, and that the Church has become more progressive (as it does). To make that assumption would be arguably stereotyping Christians. It’s a relatively justified assumption, in that it’s based on actual doctrine put forth by the church, but it’s not necessarily informed, as it’s a subject oft debated by even the higher echelons of the church itself.

However, if one were to assume that any given Christian found gluttony sinful, I would consider that an informed assumption, not a stereotype. Now I’m sure there are Christians that don’t believe gluttony to be a sin, but it is one of the core rules put forth by the Church, it is defined as a sin, and to reject that rule is to be less of a Christian. There’s nothing wrong with that, to each their own - but to reject one of the commandments is by it’s very definition not-Christian.

Now, in contrast, if one were to assume that a woman is a home’s primary care-giver, a ‘housewife’, if you will, that would be an uninformed assumption. It would be an unpleasant stereotype. There is no doctrine that states that for one to be a woman she must be a housewife, and therefore to assume as such is misguided.

I don’t believe that when assuming someone meets the criteria of their own ideology that you are stereotyping them, as I’ve said, ‘in any meaningful way’. That’s not to say that you can’t use a dictionary definition to justify the use of the term, but then this isn’t dictionary corner - sometimes a definition doesn’t account for the wider context and any geographical variances, the weight it might have, who uses the terminology and why.

A woman is not less of a woman, because she isn’t a housewife; because being a housewife isn’t a female characteristic, it’s a stereotype. A christian is less of a christian if they don’t feel that gluttony is a sin, to assume as much is not so much stereotyping, as making an informed assumption - the characteristic is a part of the definition - like assuming that a woman has a vagina - she might not! But I don’t think it’s stereotyping to assume that she does…

IMO there is a cavern of difference between characterising someone based on their chosen beliefs, and characterising someone because of an innate characteristic of their personage.

To use the original comment as a source, claiming that Christians are sheeple is certainly insulting and unpleasant, but I don’t recognise that as a ‘stereotype’. What one really means when they make a statement like that is, given the assumed beliefs of this person (assumed based on their own self-identification as a follower of certain beliefs), one believes them to be weak minded. To argue that this conclusion is based on stereotypes is to argue that some Christians may not be that Christian. That’s not to say that Christians can’t be stereotyped (because of course they can, as can anyone) - but I don’t believe those stereotypes are sourced from their shared belief systems, they’re still personal characterisations - such as assuming that a priest is a pedophile (nothing actually to do with being a Christian).

Maybe you’ll still disagree with me @Mister44 - but I hope that at least you see my perspective a little clearer, and perhaps understand the point that I’m making, especially when I refer to this being an issue of semantics.

Or maybe I’m just not getting it, and inviting a few extra voices to the conversation will add clarity to either side of the discussion.


I strongly doubt that there is any distinction between ‘stereotype’ and ‘heuristic’, ‘inductive reasoning’ or ‘statistical inference’ to be found strictly in their information content.

Perhaps, as a group, stereotypes are more resistant to modification based on updated data (Just like a stereotype would be, to lazy, pig-headed, and generally ignorant to listen to the facts…); but people do lousy heuristic work all the time that isn’t ‘stereotyping’, just bad stats, and statistical truth is not generally considered to be a defense against charges of ‘stereotyping’, however strong the data.

Again, as with our discussion some time back about the ‘Boston Celtics’ vs. the ‘Washington Redskins’, it’s mostly a matter of the social power and hierarchy-reinforcing deployment of various verbal constructs, rather than the constructs themselves (which don’t even have to make any sense: much schoolyard trash-talk makes almost no sense at all, as a sentence that ostensibly conveys meaning, except that it is understood by all to be an attack on the target.)

By way of example: there isn’t any informational difference between the statistical/epidemiological reasoning that would cause a public health outfit to target anti-violence interventions at poor urban minorities, especially males, and the stereotype that young black men are violent and dangerous. The same would be true of a genetic counselor paying particular attention to a British couple of Pakistani immigrant background, vs. and EDL skinhead with some booze in him shouting about imbred pakis.

We usually call them ‘stereotypes’ when statements or beliefs in the form of an inductive inference (whether true or not) are used primarily for their value as social/hierarchical weapons. Informationallly indistinguishable (if, probably better informed on the whole, since stereotype users are not primarily truth-motivated, though they may use true statements when it suits them, while researchers do tend to be theoretically truth motivated, if sometimes misled, incompetent, or otherwise fallible) assertions not used for their value as social blunt instruments; but for more benign purposes, are usually classified as non-stereotypes.

(One other salient factor, though it can, again, occur as cognitive blinding on the part of somebody who we wouldn’t use the term ‘stereotyping’ for, might be the willingness of the person holding the inductive inference to treat individual cases who deviate from the statistical norm as individual instances. Statistical induction is a fine way, often your only one, of assessing things that you otherwise would have no data about; but it’s a rare population indeed where all members have the same traits as the ‘average’ member. If you are fully truth-motivated, and successful in being so(the human brain is not evolved to be a truth machine, don’t let it trick you.), you will replace statistical likelihoods with individual facts as the facts become available. If you are primarily interested in using things that look like statistical inferences as tools of power, it will behoove you to treat individuals, even if they exhibit signs of being statistically atypical, as though they, personally, are simply a local instance of the ‘average’ member of whatever group you’ve assigned them to.)


Fantastic response. I think I’m going to have to read through it a few times, but a fantastic contribution to the discussion.

I see this as being particularly relevant when it comes to discussions of race. It sounds like exactly what’s happening when someone uses an isolated crime statistic to justify a statement like, ‘black men are criminals’ - whilst completely ignoring the wider context of the statistic and more importantly the connection it has to the colour of their skin (none).

Would you say that applies to examples of like-minded groups, such as a religion or political party? In my opinion the reasoning changes because it’s not about projecting statistical truth, as much as it is accepting that to be a part of that group, certain characteristics are required. Maybe I’m just splitting hairs?

I don’t think that that’s hair-splitting (if a group Y is, by definition made up of ‘people with characteristic X’, assertions of the form ‘Y people are so X’ is so tautologically true as to be beyond question, unless your motives/affect/context for bringing that fact up are so overtly crass that doing so is basically the equivalent of just making rude noises while somebody else is trying to talk.

However, I suspect that this view is a bit naive about how things like religions and political parties actually work, as social institutions. Even in situations where Orthodoxy, rather than Orthopraxy, is the alleged gold-standard (eg. Protestant Christianity, strongly self-selected dissident groups or college Randroid clubs), it isn’t uncommon to find people who will affirm whatever ‘correct’ positions they can remember, if prompted; but embrace them with such minimal fervor that they are totally untroubled by holding or acting on a variety of other positions that are blatantly contradictory to their alleged positions. In situations where Orthopraxy is actually acceptable (rather than just inevitable), all bets are off. As much as I find people who exist in this state of blatant contradiction and/or compartmentalization rather galling, their existence is something empiricism has forced me to accept.

Outside of rather contrived examples that read like exerpts from a textbook on how deductive logic is both irrefutable and nearly futile as a way of gaining information about the world, even membership in allegedly ‘like-minded’ groups tends to encourage; but not to require, any particular characteristics (unless party leadership is ruthless and efficient at weeding the rank and file). ‘Cafeteria Catholics’ who pick and choose from the buffet without the slightest regard for theological consistency or statements from HQ, nominal adherents of various political parties who loath at least half the candidates thereof, or are overtly wrong about what the candidates claim to stand for, much less what they do, that sort of thing.

TL;DR, my tendency is to be very suspicious indeed of the existence of a bright line between ‘merely incidental’ and ‘like-minded’ groups: it could easily be (and probably sometimes is) that you can draw stronger statistical inferences from mere demographic data than you can from affinity-group membership in the sloppier groups.

That said, one major difference is that bringing up how statistically anomalous an individual is, relative to their group, is a common ‘stereotyping’ tactic with regard to groups that are seen as involuntary ( in US usage, say, calling a black person perceived as atypically focused on educational achievement an ‘oreo’ (black on the outside, white on the inside, ‘bananna’ serves the same function for asian/pacific colorations) or accusing them of ‘acting white’; in class contexts, anything in the ‘you think you’re too good for your roots/family/us?’, that sort of thing). That sort of thing is pure stereotyping, and can be quite effective.

By contrast, with groups that are ostensibly defined by affinity, and can be changed, it would not obviously be stereotyping to ask “Umm, so you don’t agree with X, Y, or Z of the party platform, and your main interest is really what the W party does. Why do you call yourself a member of the B party?” Similarly (especially if socially salient issues are on the line), asking somebody why they continue to stand behind a group that endorses some invidious policy, despite not agreeing with it themselves, and reminding them of the fact that they are voting with their feet, so they really ought to have good reasons, isn’t ‘stereotyping’ in any useful sense (though it can be obnoxious if overdone). If, say, a liberal Catholic of your aquaintance, despite not believing that catholicism is the only route to salvation, or that homos and uppity women are icky, remains on the membership rolls, and possibly even kicks some cash into the offerings plate from time to time, asking them "What are you doing supporting somebody who puts their power and influence directly against what you believe? Is that ethical? You can get almost the same service down the street with the Episcopalians, and the UUs are always taking members, what’s the deal?)

That aspect of affinity groups (that they can be changed) seems like a much bigger deal. Allegations to the contrary, people fall into ‘affinity groups’ for no better reason than “well, that’s where mom and dad took me growing up” or “everybody did X in $HOMETOWN$”, so judgements based on group membership are just statistical best guesses, same as any other; but critiques of group membership with respect to stated beliefs and/or behavior with such voluntary associations seem to be non-stereotyping, while the same critiques with respect to involuntary groups are a very potent form.

(Incidentally, if you want a total bloody mess, that lives right on the boundary between ‘involuntary’ and ‘affinity’ groups, just look for a fight between ‘deaf culture’ advocates who think that Cochlear implants are the slow-burning genocide of their equally valid way of being and Cochlear implant enthusiasts. Since the best time for the operation is on the relatively young, you get the extra salience of people making decisions in loco parentis for minor children to go along with it.)

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I heard about the cochlear issue (sometime in the last year, no pun intended) and found it fascinating. It was as a result of seeing one of those ‘Joe Blogs hears for the first time’ videos. That’s one of those issues so complex I don’t even know what I think about it.

[quote=“NathanHornby, post:1, topic:13248”] at least you see my perspective a little clearer, and perhaps understand the point that I’m making

I see your point - I just think it’s baloney. “No, no, my dear, I didn’t fart, it was the mere subtle breaking of wind.”

First off we should make this clear. Everyone stereotypes. It’s the way our brain works. This applies to other things besides just people, Fords are shit, Apple products are awesome, it’s better food because it’s “organic”, etc If you see yourself as a good person who uses their logic and intelligence to make informed assumptions, you need to get over yourself and realize many times it’s stereotyping.

And that’s ok.

MOST stereotyping is harmless generalizations. When stereotyping harms is when it reinforces negative assumptions and leads to things like discrimination and prejudice. Or when it marginalizes or puts down people - assuming they are lesser.

I get your point about stereotyping traits you are born with, vs cultures and organizations you choose to be part of. Certainly one can’t help their race, sex, sexual orientation, what country they are from, or any disabilities they are born with. Stereotypes of these groups are going to be the most broad and effect the most people because of the populations of these groups (stereotype women and you do it to half the planet.)

When it comes to the nuances of religion, I suppose some things are acknowledged differences with out being stereotypes. I made the statement once that Protestants don’t believe in The Immaculate Conception, and @Medievalist showed me a sect that in fact did - an exception to the rule. I would still say the statement isn’t stereotyping, nor would your examples of gluttony is a sin, or that Christians believe in the resurrection of Christ. In general these doctrine stereotypes are harmless, no one is being discriminated against when you say “Christians believe you get to heaven by works.” when in fact many believe it is only by grace.

However, there are other areas that becomes more grey, and people who aren’t familiar are especially likely to stereotype. You can say “According to the Bible, gay sex is a sin.” But you can’t say something like, “Christians hate gays.” Not everyone follows that gay sex is a sin, but even those that do can follow the practice of “hate the sin, love the sinner” (which includes everyone).

Then there are examples that are very cut and dry:

Cue Lewis Black, “Brrrrttt! What?!”

Do you not see when you say “Christians are weak minded.” you are not only stereotyping, but it’s the worst kind - the kind that that promotes “discrimination and prejudice… marginalizes or puts down people - assuming they are lesser.”

First off - even if you’re an atheist, you make decisions based on faith every day. Every time we buy something we have faith those bits of paper and metal are worth something. Most of these are minor, or unimportant, and not as big as “the man in the sky” - but faith none the less.

But to assume Christians or people who believe in a religion or have faith are weak minded sheeple is in my mind just as bad as any racist or sexist stereotype out there. It simple isn’t true. First of, if it were true, there wouldn’t be 1001 flavors of Christianity. No, people think for themselves, think that the old way of looking at something/doing things isn’t right, and they split off to preach their truth. Second I know many Christians who are educated, smart, and anything but weak minded. The most religious person I know also happens to be the most intelligent person I know. She’s a family doctor, does ER work on the weekend for “fun”, and plays the cello in the local symphony. She’s one of those who can play a piece just about perfectly they first time she sees it.

Back to the original argument that there are “fundamental differences between organisational (sic) characteristics and personal stereotypes”. As I acknowledged above, I see the point about there being a difference between traits you can’t help - and cultures and organizations you choose to be part of. I just think that there is a difference on whether or not it’s stereotyping is hooey.

Here are a handful of stereotypes, with out mentioning sex, race, nationality, etc. Most of them are relatively harmless - but stereotyping none the less. They are not as broad of a generalization of a race or sex, but close your eyes when you read each category and I am sure an image will form in your mind - that is your stereotype.

hip-hopper - long jersey shirt, pants worn low with underwear showing, hat on backwards or to the side, hands contorted into symbols

environmentalist - wears Birkenstocks, smokes pot, drives a Prius

cheerleader - thin, prissy, popular, fashionable, wears makeup, concerned about looks, shallow, not smart

gamer/comic reader/role player - nerdy, no social life, weak social skills, no boyfriend/girlfriend, wears geeky clothes, bad groomer

jock - not very smart, popular, picks on weaker kids (There is a very special episode of MLP where Rainbow Dash learns that just because she’s athletic, doesn’t mean she shouldn’t like to read.)

actor/actress - dramatic, narcissistic, insecure, popular

skater - likes punk rock, graffiti, vandalism

hipster - skinny pants, nerdy glasses, vintage shirt, ironic hat

stripper - cheap, easy, daddy issues, drug user, not smart

solider - brave, patriotic, loyal, honest, baby-killer, order following robot

heavy metal fan - wears black band shirts, long hair

Catholics - drink a lot, have guilt

poor person - lazy, uneducated, liable to steal, lives in a trailer park or Section 8 housing, feels entitled to gov. handouts

programmer/techy - smart, dresses nerdy, bad social skills, has newest techno gadget

Unfortunately while trying to be clever about 'sic’ing the correct spelling of recognise you missed the point of that crucial paragraph. I wasn’t making the judgment that Christians are weak minded, I was explaining what was meant when referring to them as sheeple. That’s what ‘one’ means, otherwise I would have written ‘I’. You completely missed the point so everything after that quote was moot.

You then go on to list stereotypes. What does this prove? You say you understand my argument, but I’m afraid that you don’t. Maybe best to just leave it there?

First off I thought that was the standard way you were supposed to quote someone when you note a mistake. I’ll just right-click and select the correct spelling next time.

As to the rest, I guess I am confused. Of course I know what sheeple means, although that wasn’t the word I used. Most people know what that means - I don’t know why you felt the need to explain it.

[quote=“NathanHornby, post:1, topic:13248”]
To use the original comment as a source, claiming that Christians are sheeple is certainly insulting and unpleasant, but I don’t recognize that as a ‘stereotype’.[/quote]

I don’t see how you can’t recognize calling anyone sheeple is not stereotyping. (except for people who are indeed half sheep-half people. AKA Soylent Purple)

[quote=“NathanHornby, post:1, topic:13248”]
What one really means when they make a statement like that is, given the assumed beliefs of this person (assumed based on their own self-identification as a follower of certain beliefs), one believes them to be weak minded. [/quote]
Right, when someone calls someone sheeple it means they are weak minded. I see you don’t mean when -you- call people sheeple, but when anyone does. Am I not correct that you are saying “These people self-identify as Christians, follow these assumed beliefs, which leads one to believe they are weak minded.”

So you are saying because believing in assumed belief XYZ makes you weak minded, and Christians believe in XYZ, then Christians are weak minded as well. This is how you come to the conclusion they are weak minded - not stereotyping. That just sounds like a brilliant way to try to rationalize stereotyping.

I re-read what you wrote slowly, went by line by line to try to understand what you said, and it appears you are making the judgment that Christians are weak minded. If that is not the case I guess I’m just an idiot or you are a master at doublespeak.

Nope, you’re really not getting it, sorry.

Let’s try again: If a group has a worldview one finds silly, calling them silly isn’t a stereotype, it’s a crude judgment of their beliefs. Better?

In both instances I recognise it’s unpleasant - my opinion of the intelligence of the average Christian is neither stated nor relevant.

I finally get what you’re getting at. I am not sure I 100% agree - it’s something “not right” - but I’m going to go watch Gravity and will have to get back to you.

My work is done if you at least understand my point :slight_smile: I apologise if the lack of clarity was my own doing.


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I guess there’s a difference between generalizations and stereotypes.

For things that people ostensibly choose, such as religion and politics, even allowing for differences of opinion within those groups, there have to be some things true of a statistically significant majority of people within those groups such that stating them as defining characteristics of members of that group is not stereotyping; those people that are members of the group that don’t share those beliefs are statistical outliers - exceptions to the rule.

I’m not going to hazard any examples, though.

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Holy shit. I am not wading into this with four tigers and a dos equis in me, I’m afraid of looking even more stupid than I actually am.

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@fuzzyfungus is a smart fungus.

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“Man is a typing animal.”

A tree is a type of plant, a conifer is a type of tree, a conifer has a different type of seed than a deciduous tree. Our brains are wired to find meaningful distinctions that help us make decisions, as individuals, that allow us to survive long enough to breed. We discriminate between the various parts of one single whole, that is called the Universe by most people, the multiverse by avant garde physicists, and God by pantheists. We can’t help it.

In natural philosophy, we arrange systematic hierarchies of types and we bicker endlessly about the distinctive characters of individual holotypes and the designation of paratypes and whether cladistics is really a tempest in a tea kettle and how to resolve Aristotle, Linnaeus and Crick. It’s because types - which are a fundamental feature of how we perceive both what is and what might be - are a hard-wired necessity of all our means of communication and nearly all our modes of thought. This type of thing, here in my hand, is named this.

Naming is deeply, profoundly important if you are a human animal; wide agreement on what comprises a category that should receive a name is necessary for the collaborative effort we inadequately call human progress. Communication of the most basic sort (“bring me the shiny sky blue thing!”) is impossible without discrimination of objects and assignment of types. The arguments of taxonomists are functionally the same in physics labs and in the stacks of Kew Gardens; we are trying to agree which characteristics of this group of trees/fermions/mollusks/bosons/humans differentiate it from any other group. Every mother teaches her baby its first types - what is an object of type nipple, what isn’t an object of type mother, etc.

Prior to the 20th century, stereograms and stereotypes were physical objects produced by printing identical images. One finds many references in old literature of natural science. Of course, those physical images weren’t really completely identical - but if they merited the name, they were indistinguishable and interchangeable for a purpose - and that purpose was often identification. This is a stereotype of the fugitive, have you seen him?

But in the 1920s or so, some psychologists mixed everything I just wrote all up in a hat, and pulled out a rabbit that we now call a stereotype. Without looking it up, I would say that stereotypes are informal, sloppy categories based on inadequate information or overgeneralization from insufficient experience; they can be negative (your wife ran away with a black man, therefore all black men cannot be trusted) or positive (English people sure do talk pretty, because Masterpiece Theater) or both, or neither. The interpretation of whether a stereotype is positive or negative can vary with the context and the person doing the interpreting, too (Mormons and Sihks have special underpants, because they are special). Psychologists argue over stereotypes like zoologists argue over holotypes.

Stereotypes are only rarely completely inaccurate - for example, anybody with the ability to identify delicious food likes fried chicken and watermelon, so it’s mostly true that African-American people like fried chicken and watermelon. Let’s face it, that stuff is good. There are easily understood historical reasons why these quintessentially “Southern” foods became stereotypically “Black” (and there’s no good reason not to enjoy them regardless of your ethnicity).

It’s true there are stereotypes that have absolutely no basis in history or reality, entirely created by malice or miscommunication, but most stereotypes are created by overgeneralization from observed data. In a word, by ignorance. If a stereotype was one hundred percent, infallibly accurate, it would be a category, a description, or a tautology, and not a stereotype at all.

Stereotypes are not necessarily harmful (racism isn’t necessarily harmful, either) but they are great enablers of harmful (wait for it) discrimination. The designation of approved victims for lynching, the designation of the children of sin, whatever some opportunist or ideologue with an agenda wants the less informed to believe.

That’s all I got. I think people who snidely invoke stereotypes as a form of ad hominem attack make themselves look both ignorant and mean-spirited. I think people who refuse to acknowledge that stereotypes are a product of ignorance and at best represent only some sort of mythical median are kidding themselves. I hope I’ve explained why.


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