The Art of Stereotyping

original photo credit: Symic via photopin cc
original photo credit: Symic via photopin cc

Have you ever felt overwhelmed by all of the information that you must process on a daily basis? Of course you have. The rapid rate of technological breakthrough results in the need to learn more just to stay current. And speaking of staying current, so much is taking place on the local, state, national, and international levels—keeping up with all of the happenings is a full-time job within itself!

What about dealing with money? The financial world is so complex! There’s also the question of how we involve ourselves. With every blink of the eye, our government seems to be passing a new (and unfavorable) law. Most of us would like to the poor, the down-trodden, and the powerless. But whom do we give to? And how do we give to ensure the money is being used wisely? Of course, the environment can always use our help. Do we save the whales? The bears? The trees? The air? The water? So many questions to be answered!

Almost by default, we are compelled to limit the amount of information we absorb. This is especially true in dealing with people. According to wikianswers.com, as of June 2013 there are an estimated 7,090,372,979 people alive on earth. How many do you know? Some experts expect a daily population increase of about 212,035 people—far more than the number of friends most of us have on social media!

photo credit: DonkeyHotey via photopin cc
photo credit: DonkeyHotey via photopin cc

We can’t personally know every living human, let alone everyone in our community. Thus, it becomes easier to lump people into groups with well-defined boundaries. Male, female. Young, old. Caucasian, African American, Hispanic, Asian. French, Italian, Chinese, Mexican. Conservative, liberal. I think you get the picture.

Certain personality traits are indeed common to stereotypical groups. Most of the Chinese people I have met, for example, are extremely gracious. Thus, I am tempted to assume that every Chinese person is gracious. The same is true of negative stereotypes. To a white, middle-aged conservative, a young black male wearing a hoodie has got to be trouble!

A certain amount of stereotyping is necessary for our sanity—there is simply no way that we can process it all. At the same time, we would do well to consciously recognize the limitations of our stereotypes. People are individuals. It is entirely feasible for a young black male to wear a hoodie simply to be fashionable.

All of this brings us to my primary point: I find it reprehensible that leaders from various camps would intentionally (and skillfully) paint negative stereotypes in an effort to manipulate well-intentioned people toward various actions. And, yet, this is the world in which we live. The universal prevalence of media in our culture hasn’t corrected the problem. Instead, it is now worse. Why? Media can easily be manipulated to present predetermined images. New pictures of reality are thereby created.

photo credit: jatmoos via photopin cc
photo credit: jatmoos via photopin cc

Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s minister of propaganda, played a huge role in creating the stereotypical Jew as an enemy to be feared and, thus, destroyed. Goebbels’ well-designed techniques stirred the hearts of the German people into frenzies that fed the fuel of World War II. Goebbels once wrote, “That propaganda is good which leads to success, and that is bad which fails to achieve the desired result. It is not propaganda’s task to be intelligent, its task is to lead to success.”[1] To Goebbels, “good” and “bad” were not defined by moral guidelines but by success or failure in pursuing a particular task.

We would do well to distinguish between information and truth. Information, which abounds in our world, may or may not be beneficial. Truth, however, is more elusive –and more necessary. When truth is obscured by vague words, doctored images, and nasty stereotypes, we are ripe for manipulation by skilled propagandists who care little about morals and much about results.

There is a tendency for those on the right and the left to blame the opposing camp for irresponsibly employing the art of stereotyping to promote their causes. Personally, I think that both carry a lot of blame. In the short-term, such methods may achieve their desired definitions of success, but in the end we all lose. Real change–change that brings healthy long-term change–can be found only through the pursuit of truth. As Christians, we dare not accept anything less!


[1] Joachim Fest, The Face of the Third Reich, p 90

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