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The Pain of Stereotypes

I’ve been following the ongoing sexism debates at Shelley’s, Dorothea’s, Mike’s and others’ sites. While I can identify with all the participants, I know of no solution to the problems discussed. I probably would have continued to remain silent if I hadn’t read Dorothea’s entry yesterday. I think it would be a major loss to “my own sense of community” if Dorothea were to decide to quit blogging because she felt she was being harassed or her views were being arbitrarily dismissed.

Personally, I agree with Mike Golby when he argues that classifying, and stereotyping, is an inevitable result of human reasoning. At two and half my grandson has already mastered stereotyping. When he looks at human figures, he has three categories: “mommy,” “daddy,” and “baby,” and repeats the appropriate category when you correct him by saying “man” or “woman.” If he looked at a picture of Dorothea he would stereotype her as a “mommy.” Maybe that’s why Dorothea has such an aversion to babies, but this kind of simple classification (read stereotyping) is an inevitable step in beginning to understand people and life itself.

Unfortunately, it appears that some people in our world have never advanced much beyond this type of simple classification. Since we all know men seldom communicate beyond simple grunts when interacting with each other, it’s little wonder that men commonly fail to advance beyond these kinds of simplified classifications. Besides, everyone who has ever spent a day changing diapers knows it’s better to be a “daddy” than a “mommy.” Daddies get to go to exciting, far away places while mommies stay home changing diapers!

Almost invariably, we are victims of stereotypes, of faulty generalizations to one degree or another. In an earlier entry entitled “In the Shape of a Heart” I explained how my misunderstanding of my first wife contributed to my divorce. Those misunderstandings were largely the result of very different expectations of what husband’s and wife’s roles were. My mother had always paid the bills and managed the money, so it seemed natural to let my first wife handle the money. In her family, though, her dad always handled the money; his wife had no idea of how much money she had when her husband died. After the divorce, I learned that my wife hated the stress of having to “manage the money.” This was only the tip of the iceberg, though, indicating far greater problems with our understanding of the roles of man and wife, particularly when the roles were applied to situations where the wife was working full time. When people who are together every day for seventeen years are unable to overcome stereotypes, it’s no wonder that “strangers” from all over the world would have different expectations of each other.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we just give up and accept each other’s stereotypes. It simply means that we have to work harder to overcome those stereotypes while still expecting that our attempts to overcome them will almost certainly engender anger and frustration. When we realize that, hopefully we can acknowledge that anger without letting it stop us from saying what we have to say to be true to ourselves.

As Jonathon points out, the mass media is more likely to promote stereotypes than to destroy them. Blogging, on the other hand, may well be one of the best places to educate men. It’s too seldom that we hear bright women explaining how they feel and why they feel that way. Unfortunately, breaking stereotypes, like breaking anything, inevitably causes pain, both for those whose stereotypes are being broken and for those who dare to break the stereotypes. Learning, though, always seems to come at a price, and one cannot hope to change others without expecting anger and frustration.