Homo sapiens are herding, mannerly animals.
History texts, irrespective of inclusivity, are nothing but a collection of stereotypes. Humans categorize and then we characterize. Doing so is in our nature.
Should we stop stereotyping “the other”?
Sure. But can we stop?
Does the stereotype offer us insight into power structures?
Yay or Nay?
Stereotyping: A method of categorizing. Adding a descriptive term to characterize a group.
The much maligned stereotype helps us understand power structures, if we care to study it.
But of course stereotyping is bad. (Look it up).
And yet Homo sapiens is guilty as sin. We continue to categorize, classify, and stereotype people, places and things. Why? We stereotype the “other” because we can and, truth be told, because we must.
The world would overwhelm us otherwise.
In literature and film, sapiens‘ stereotyping faculty is frequently highlighted – especially in the romance genre. (Genres result from our categorizing literature.) Romance, both in mediaeval and modern stories, centres on characters who are stereotypes. On occasion, depending on how literary we are, we may be moved to call romantic stereotypes, archetypes. The mother. The witch. The virgin. The hero. The villain. The fool. The vain. The conniving. And so forth.
Movie romances engulf us in stereotypes. One of the best of (fairly) recent movies to illustrate the point is Two Weeks Notice (Marc Lawrence directed).
In Two Weeks Notice Sandra Bullock and Hugh Grant play the stereotypical romantic protagonists. They are Lucy Kelson (a progressive but cash-strapped female in want of a partner but not acknowledging it) and George Wade (a wealthy male jerk, a womanizer, not in want of a partner but overstating it). No Austen irony here.
Director Lawrence pokes fun at the romance-comedy genre and points to a biological fact: We stereotype “the other.” And to illustrate the point, here is one heated but very revealing exchange between Lucy and George:
Lucy: George, I think you are the most selfish human being on the planet.
George: Well that’s just silly. Have you met everybody on the planet?
Grant mutters – in risible Grant style – “Well that’s just silly . . .” (after which the audience expects a probable personal denial, such as, “I may be selfish but you are . . .). The unexpected retort about Lucy’s not knowing everybody on the planet is the height of silliness. Yet the retort reflects the essence of romance, literary genres, and the biological binomial system. Grant’s delivery is worthy of an Oscar, and all’s well that ends well. Matronly Lucy and man/boy George end up in each other’s arms. But conflict reigns before love enters. This singular exchange, which I have just quoted, highlights why we as individuals want to classify other people. We stereotype everything.
Our memories simply cannot cope with the planet’s trillions upon trillions of discrete parts.
Sure, our stereotypes are often wrong. Good grief, even Carl Linnaeus got things wrong but he was right overall. Linnaeus recognized the benefit of taxonomy (dividing a mass into close comparatives). We need a memory aid to grasp the essences and relativities of the big and little pictures. In Lawrence’s lighthearted romance-comedy, George Wade’s silliness about the impossibility of knowing everybody on the planet reveals a grand truth about sapiens. We cope.
We categorize. We generalize. We label. We are natural taxonomists and inveterate stereotypers: sometimes the stereotype is neutral, sometimes positive, sometimes negative. No matter. We keep up the stereotyping and describing, every day, in every way, because we cannot help it.
For instance, you have not met every dog on the planet but you understand dog as the word pertains both to individual creatures, such as your pet, and to groups. Understanding the difference between the one and the many, you illustrate a human instinct at work.
A child can do it.
Toddler sees Rex-the-dog one day and Pipi-the-dog the next day. On the third day, toddler sees Rover and because she subconsciously recognizes the value of taxonomy, she points to Rover, whom she has never before met, and she says “dog.”
Unless a dog has bitten or frightened the child, the child speaks with no prejudice. She merely states what she believes is true: This individual dog is part of the group dog. No problem there. Parents applaud. There is nothing but praise for the ordinary child’s ability to generalize. Without knowing psychologies and how playful, growly, or protective they are, the child has put Rex, Pipi, and Rover into the category, dog.
Then we take matters a step further. We characterize what we’ve categorized. Dogs, if they understood a generative language, would be insulted by sapiens’ negative epithets for stereotyping our best friend, such as, dirty dog, hound dog, dog days, etc. (The Internet lists a series of offensive pet dog names. Caillou is my favourite.)
Ah well. Categorizing people, objects, actually categorizing everything that resembles or seems to resemble something else, is our talent. And then we add a descriptor. We may be wrong but we don’t care. We gleefully keep at it. Much better than humans at storing bits and pieces, computers “memorize” discrete parts, but I digress.
In stereotyping our prejudices, we use descriptors intended to demean our enemies. Common settler names of many Indigenous nations come from epithets Indigenous rivals have used to describe each other. Example. The Huron, not being over fond of the large confederacy to the south, called the Haudenosaunee a French variant of the category snake – hence the word Iroquois.
The wholesale denigration of so-called “barbaric” culture clubs is legendary in its prolificacy. Terms can stick over millennia, or until the offended groups, demanding respect and legitimacy, grow enough mass to straighten out the “others’ ” prejudices. The human record, for good or ill, is replete with stereotypes. Pick up your favourite history or philosophical text and you will find human stereotyping at its most erudite.
Writers of fiction can propel stereotypes to the level of genius, and the American writer Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) was one of the best of twentieth-century mannerists. O’Connor’s life span nearly parallels that of Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962). I mention the fact just to give you the context of her era and the affordances O’Connor was facing.
O’Connor’s short story “Everything that Rises Must Converge” was posthumously published in 1965.
The stereotypes in O’Connor’s story are familiar but only a sensitive observer of the human condition, someone like O’Connor, could make people with different manners converge into a poignant, pathetic, and human narrative, cast in glorious verisimilitude. On a bus, yet!
I’ll generalize to give you a plot summary. In O’Connor’s aforementioned short story there is a cultural collision. A stereotypical White woman (unfortunately but currently called a “Karen”), a stereotypical Black woman (the angry Black woman), and a stereotypical White youth (a resentful, restless soul, what the twenty-first-century calls a “millennial”) all hop aboard a bus. So, what is it that converges on the bus? Answer, as given: In spectacular fashion, the manners of their three vastly different 1960s culture clubs clash like sabres.
The oblivious White woman doesn’t realize how significantly times have changed: The educated White youth frowns upon White adults’ offering money to Black adults and kids, proving kindness and condescension travel a fine line.
The push toward inclusion and power, thanks to Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement, has given a voice to the marginalized. Consequently, this descendent of the enslaved African population (the angry Black woman) is no longer terrified to show “the other” how unjust their continental history has been.
The resentful young White man is embarrassed by everybody’s behaviours, and he’s already especially mortified by the tacky appearance of his aging mother, she who feels she descends from a grand lineage.
Do you believe O’Connor’s story of converging stereotypes is too dated to have current traction? Let us not cancel O’Connor. Using O’Connor’s intuitive spotlight (instead of cancelling it), let us instead consider the recent case of Susan Katharine Hussey, Baroness Hussey of North Bradley. Hussey is a British noblewoman who served as a Woman of the Bedchamber to Queen Elizabeth II and as a Lady of the Household from September to November 2022 under King Charles III.
Hussey is a stereotypical “Karen” – an aristocratic, oblivious “Karen.” At an event at Buckingham Palace (the bus!), Hussey’s aristocratic manners converged and clashed with those of Black commoner Ngozi Fulani.
Ms. Fulani, the angry (at least the annoyed) Black woman, was at the palace as a representative of the London-based charity Sistah Space, which supports the UK’s abused women of African and Caribbean heritage. On the Internet one scrolls down literally yards of Hussey’s post-clash apology to Ngozi Fulani, and not much on the original offence. (Hair touching and Lady Hussey’s insistence on knowing where Ms Fulani’s “people” were from – Africa? The Caribbean? A logical question considering the mandate of the society but one loaded with condescension, especially because Ms Fulani was a guest at the palace. BTW, the Fulanis are from London.) Putting the focus on the apology rather than the insult, Charles and William’s insiders continue to feed royal scoops to an arms-wide-open tabloid press.
The public nature of the Hussey-Fulani incident made William (the resentful, entitled prince of the realm) feel rather embarrassed, and he didn’t for a second hesitate to accept Hussey’s resignation – although one imagines People-of-the-Bedchamber still exists as a royal category. (But why? Does anyone other than me find this honour ridiculous?)
In any case, what do we have here in 2022? We have something O’Connor wrote about, pre 1965: An oblivious old White Lady – who belongs to a shrinking culture club that doesn’t appreciate how much times have changed – condescends to a middle-aged Black woman (angry Black woman). The Black woman belongs to an expanding culture club whose compliors are not about to back off from pointing out systemic racism among the British aristocracy.
And, finally, from a small, rarified culture club there comes the privileged young man (the millennial). The young man tries to shut down the clamour. At the very least, he wants to turn the narrative to advantage because, after all, the Crown is an ideal – think of the opinion-less, perfectly mannered Duchess of York. Wait-y Katey, as she was apparently called. Kate is currently flawless, isn’t she? If she has an opinion about anything, anything at all in the great wide wonderful world, the public doesn’t know about it. That’s a perfect look for an ideal. The Crown and Kate may be ideals but the Mountbatten-Windsors are also a fraught and at times distraught family. (Ask the Firm about Andrew, formerly known as prince, and they’ll demur, and direct your attention away from their predatory relative, to the she’s American- therefore-she-must-be-a-narcissist Meghan.)
Don’t fall for it. After all, when it comes to the Sussexes, the palace is happy to confirm every single prejudicial stereotype the press wants to employ to sir up resentment against the “enemy.” William, with the support of his communications experts, plays hardball to court public opinion. Money talks. William has plenty.
And what is the reader’s assumption upon reading about the Hussey-Fulani-Prince clash?
1) Progressives beware: There are still many careless snobs in the declining mass of the British aristocratic culture clubs who are mannered exactly like the elderly Lady Hussey.
2) Conservatives beware: There is a growing mass of ethnically diverse culture clubs who are mannered like Ms Fulani and not afraid to beak back at royalty.
3) Royalists and non-royalists beware: William and his group of insiders are on guard. The royals have enormous resources. They’re going full metal jacket. To survive with the Mountbatten-Windsor name intact, this group of idealists can be ruthless enemies. They have proven it.
Personal note from a liberal: If William wants to help his royal family see an ideal future, the manners of his culture club are going to have to change . . . a lot. Diversity wants in. Will the
English aristocracy keep refusing to welcome it?
The level of inclusion in any given culture club is a huge and significant political question. Who’s in? Who’s out? The fraught royal situation comes to us via the lens of negative stereotypes, as Harry and Meghan are quick to tell us. The pathos surrounding the Hussey-Fulani affair is stunning and evocative.
I wonder: How will the Canadian hegemony, “millennial” in stereotype, react to accusations of racism in the royal family, other than ignoring it and hoping that such public, humiliating exchanges will fast fade away. Imperialist, United Empire Loyalist (UEL) Torontonians will defend William, of course.
We stereotype “others” because we can and, truth be told, because we must. Even when our taxonomies are suspect and the collisions between different culture-club members are more pathetic than dismaying, we can’t stop ourselves from classifying groups of people and adding descriptors. We might as well spotlight conflicting manners, as Flannery O’Connor so brilliantly does, to find out what happened on the bus and how the clash illustrates the rise and fall of contemporary power structures.
Featured Image is from Huff Post.