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THE ABILITY TO STEREOTYPE: The no-good horrible gift of Homo sapiens tells us when its time for Canada to cut and run



The much maligned human ability to stereotype helps us understand power structures. Our observing who–stereotypes–whom, plus our making a special note of who fits in with the group, and who doesn't, is a double-edged gift. Stereotyping, a superficial assessment of the other via the manners of the group they belong to, acts as an aid to human memory and intelligence.


To secure our survival and our culture club's survival, we must know who belongs to our herd (has our manners), and who does not. Stereotyping helps us make that determination.


The British Crown has birthed a few constitutional monarchies, among them are Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Bahamas. These nations benefit hugely from the Westminster Parliamentary system (the US should be so lucky); however, the Canadian constitutional monarchy is fast turning into an anachronism – my opinion, of course. The stereotypical Canadian, a polite respecter of egalitarian manners, wrestles with the concept of entrenched "betterness" by birthright. A dour Canadian, someone like me, believes kings and queens and kingdoms are fine in fairytales (to illustrate to children the power of absolute authority) but that's where it ends. Royal prerogative doesn't fit the manners of contemporary democracies. A king? Really.


How long can an anachronistic power structure keep its foreign followers? The Hussey-Fulani collision illustrates the value of analyzing stereotypes to determine outcomes, and why we can safely say vintage royal manners are not lawful Canadian manners.


But I'm stereotyping, and that's bad, isn't it?.


But of course stereotyping is bad. (Look it up).

Homo sapiens is blissfully guilty of stereotyping. 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.


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 of dogs, most of whom you might never have met. Understanding the difference between the one and the many who fit into said group, 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 a strange new dog, Rover, and because she subconsciously recognizes the value of taxonomy, she points to Rover and 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 stereotype. Without knowing psychologies and how playful, growly, or protective dogs are, the child has put Rex, Pipi, and Rover into the category, dog.


But sapiens often will take matters a step further. You and I start to characterize what we’ve categorized. Our canine best friends, if they understood our generative language, would be terribly insulted by sapiens negative epithets, such as, dirty dog, hound dog, dog days, etc. (The Internet lists a series of offensive pet dog names. Caillou is my favourite.)


The world would overwhelm us if we could not stereotype the unit to see how it fits into the collective. Data-memory monsters, AI chatbots do not have our data problem, nor our efficiency in getting around the problem. More important, AI does not have our brilliant consciousness and self-awareness. AI hoovers up data to find patterns. Toddlers find patterns using hardly any data at all. Sapiens lives to categorize. Further, we are aware of the fact we stereotype the other: We love making up categories and also hate ourselves for superficial assessments but life intrudes. We are impatient. We want to know, quickly, who's with us and who's against us; the best way to do that is to determine whether we share manners, whether we are "under manners."


In literature and film, sapiens‘ stereotyping is frequently highlighted – especially in the romance genre. (Genres result from our categorizing types of literature.) Romance, both in mediaeval and modern stories, centres on characters who are representative of a larger group, aka, yes, stereotypes. On occasion, depending on how literary we are, we may be moved to call romantic stereotypes, archetypes. The representative 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). Austen's irony lives.


Director Lawrence pokes fun at the romance-comedy genre and points to a biological fact: we're herders, and sex is the herd's way forward to survival. To defend the stereotype, 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 attack, 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. 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 traditional plot conflicts and classic obstructions (more archetypes) reign supreme before love can harmonize personal differences. In any case, the singular exchange, which I have just quoted, highlights why we, as individuals, want to classify other people. We see the world through the eyes of herders. We do it because, unlike AI's potential for collecting data on billions of people, we really do not know everybody on the planet.


Redux: Unlike AI, our memories simply cannot cope with the planet’s trillions upon trillions of discrete parts. We need a short cut.


Sure, our stereotypes are often wrong. Even Carl Linnaeus got things wrong, sometimes very wrong, but he was right overall. Linnaeus recognized the immediate benefits of our instinct for taxonomy. 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. The child in us knows we cope with the external by categorizing it. We lump. We generalize. We label. We compare. We are natural taxonomists and inveterate comparers: sometimes the effort we make is neutral, sometimes positive, sometimes negative. No matter. We keep up the stereotyping and describing, and doing it every day and in every way, because we cannot help it.


Why do we do it? As stated, we must understand who belongs in our herd and, therefore, who is unlikely to rob, murder or cheat us, sans punishment. Our herd has rules about harming members. Members of our herd may not look alike but they will come to sound alike. We greet each other the same way. We (usually) understand our mode of governance. By adopting similar manners - civilities, laws, bylaws, policies - we do our best to harmonize group conduct.


In stereotyping our prejudices, however, we use descriptors intended to demean and demonize 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 southeast, called the enemy 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 and gain enough power to straighten out prejudices. Or perhaps maligned groups disappear –– never able to defend themselves. Like Neanderthals. By the way, the term Neanderthal is stereotypical, and often prejudicial where it shouldn't be. In many regions of Europe, Neanderthals, with their larger brains, devised tools more elegant than the ones sapiens made at the same time. We are fools to imagine the Neanderthal was our intellectual inferior ––though perhaps genetically not as diverse as we are.


As a political sapiens, we study power and power structures. Only writers of fiction are interested in the powerless, unaligned individual.


Writers of fiction can propel stereotypes to the level of genius, and the American writer Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) is 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 (political contexts) O’Connor faced when she wrote about the widening acceptance of skin-colour diversity in the American South.


If skin-colour diversity is not welcomed into the Firm (the royal household of the United Kingdom, which dominates English manners), we may be witnessing the last days of the Canadian constitutional monarchy.


O’Connor’s short story “Everything that Rises Must Converge” was posthumously published in 1965. What happens when people, guilty of stereotyping, never get beyond their manners. No one walks away knowing anything more about the other than they knew before they met. Never mind. We look away from the personal. The personal is a political waste of time. 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 but we forget we're sapiens, and all of one race. The stereotypes in O’Connor’s story are familiar but only a sensitive observer, someone like O’Connor, can squeeze out the utter poignancy of the human condition.



Flannery O’Connor Everything that Rises Must Converge


In the simplest of scenarios, O’Connor weaves her magic. A stereotypical elderly White woman, a stereotypical Black woman and her young, unmannered child, and a stereotypical, educated White Youth, all hop aboard a bus. In the American South. Rosa Parks territory.


The old White woman follows a 1930s' Southern culture. She doesn’t realize how fervently the post-war zeitgeist has embraced a new code. Old White woman offers a coin to a disinterested Black child. Her White son hates to see her do this. He, the educated Youth, realizes times have changed, even in the South. Educated young people understand kindness and condescension travel a fine line. The Youth is right to worry. The Old White woman's little gesture offends the Black woman. The Black woman forms part of a new-age Black culture club that disdains the help of the "White saviour." The push toward inclusion, and a readjustment of cultural power, thanks to Martin Luther King, James Baldwin, Malcolm X, etc., and the Civil Rights movement, have given voice to the marginalized (and tossed poor Harriet Beecher Stowe and her ilk right out the back bus window). The Black woman doesn't want her son to accept a hint of charity. No coins. No way. The Black woman is cross with the Old White woman: we don't need your money. The educated Youth is embarrassed by everybody’s conduct, and he’s already especially mortified by the tacky appearance of his aging mother, she who feels she descends from a grand lineage.


Don't we know it. By nature, youth disdain the cultures of the old. But on this bus, three culture clubs are in conflict. For each group, polite manners (folkways) differ. A clash ensues.


Using O’Connor’s intuitive spotlight, let's consider the recent case (2022) 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, from September to November by the grace of King Charles III, as a Lady of the Household. Hussey is no hussy.


At an event at Buckingham Palace, the aristocratic Hussey’s manners astonished Black commoner, Ngozi Fulani.


Ms. Fulani 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 profuse apology to Ngozi Fulani, and not much on the original offence. (Hair touching, apparently, 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 piled high with condescension, especially because Ms Fulani was a guest of the royals. BTW, the Fulanis are from London.)


The public nature of the Hussey-Fulani incident made William, educated Youth of the realm, feel embarrassed, and he apparently wasted nary a second before accepting old Lady Hussey’s resignation. Swift justice, but who knows? People-of-the-Bedchamber may still exist as a royal category. No Canadian quite comprehends the reason for such a ludicrous position––and we're all very glad to leave it at that.


In any case, what do we have here? We have an incident similar to the one O’Connor wrote about sixty years ago: An old White Lady, someone who belongs to a vintage culture, seemed utterly oblivious to the changing egalitarian affordances the Firm must face if it wants to stay relevant. The old White "lady" with the vintage manners condescended to a middle-aged Black woman, who, as an invited guest at the palace, was likely as mystified and generally as mortified as Meghan Markle must have felt on several palatial occasions. Ms Fulani and friends belong to an expanding "commoner" culture club whose members are not about to back off from pointing out existing systemic racism among the British aristocracy. No matter how much Tina Brown tries to defend the entitled shenanigans of this sorry lot.


After the Hussey-Fulani manners' clash, charges of racism ensued. During the pathetic contretemps in question, likely no one was as miserable as William, watching the power of the Crown (possibly) dissolving right before his eyes.


We don't forget that William, still reeling from the wicked treatment the Firm doled out or allowed to be doled out to his sister-in-law, was under close watch and expected to hold things together.


The royals are servants of the people, right? Keep William "under manners," barks the royal equivalent of Bobby Glass. If we want to stereotype the vintage English royals we can say they are recent white-supremacist snobs, and William is their dodger-in-chief, caught dead to rights by the manners of a doddery old lady, upon whose frail old shoulders William lays all the blame for the Firm's brand of acceptable racism.


We do not know the heart and soul of Susan Hussey or Ngoni Fulani. We do not know their mental states, or their senses of compassion. Or whether they are good people. One guesses Hussey and Fulani are good people. But, as in O'Connor's short story, the heart and soul don't much matter here. It's the manners that count.


We know famous people only by their stereotypical manners. We are always happy to read personal testimonies about an individual's character. But, how often do we indulge in soul-searching the other? How often do we seek to understand the essence of the stranger? Not that often. We don't have time, nor do we have data-base memories. We have taxonomic memories. We categories and then we characterize. We want to know whether people belong to comparable, compatible herds, modern herds, herds that consider skin colour to be immaterial in terms of "fitting in" and "belonging."


What is the inevitable conclusion of this cultural collision?


Stereotypically, Canada is not like England.


English and Canadian, we do not belong in each other's herds.


Time to cut the cord, Canada.





Featured Image is from Huff Post.

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