Breaking stereotypes, part II

People are sometimes frustrated when talking to me about news or politics. They might express passion and emotions about an issue but, even when I fundamentally agree with their position, I tend to try to explain the other side and correct misunderstandings I heard from them. This is either interpreted as me always taking the other side, or as me being overly intellectual and aloof–or even worse, a smug know-it-all.

I believe Western civilization is too accepting of outside influence, and not invested enough in its own cultural continuity. But is my personal habit of empathy and nonjudgmentalism a micro level version of the same pathology? Perhaps I should evaluate which positions would, if given the power of influence, result in negative effects to me directly, and then take up a policy of always degrading those positions and antagonizing the people who support them. (That would at least make me appear as a more normal person, anyway.)

Yet I still have an incentive to respond with nonjudgment and rationality to just about any viewpoint, even (with a few exceptions) ones that in practical terms are calling for my demise: I am following my own advice about negative stereotypes. Essentially, the only way to shatter stereotypes is to do it yourself.

I am keenly aware of the negative stereotypes about my race/ethnicity/class, and I try whenever possible to deviate from the ones I don’t like or that I perceive as a source of problems for my race/ethnicity/class. One of the stereotypes about my ethnicity is that we are scornful and look down on other groups of people, especially one particular group for whom the scorn is not mutual, and so I try not to do that.

This is a kind of public goods problem though. Shattering stereotypes is unnatural for most people (that’s why stereotypes with predictive power persist in the first place), and it requires a critical mass of people doing it before the stereotype is actually changed or erased. (It can be done of course; there are stereotypes that were prevalent many years ago about, say, Irish immigrants or software engineers that are no longer true today.)

What we need is a way to incentivize masses of people to break negative stereotypes about themselves. For example, imagine a widely-circulated virtual tool that first collects basic information about the user and tells him what are the most common negative stereotypes about himself. Then it gives practical advice or options for how to break those stereotypes. Not all users would immediately do it, but the message and available courses of action would become more visible, and could enter the public consciousness as an alternative to the unproductive blaming of “hate” or “intolerance.”


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