Saturday, January 31, 2009

Individual Stereotypes

Stereotypes: A Theoretical Hypothesis - S. N. Balagangadhara

Individual Stereotypes

Most people in the western culture not only pride themselves in their self-knowledge but also believe such knowledge to be an index of the maturity, independence and stability of a person. What they mean by self-knowledge is actually a picture they have built of themselves which is more often than not at odds with the kind of creatures they are. It is an amalgam of odds and ends: ideas, values, fantasies, ideals, etc which they slug all through their lives. The less this picture is subjected to shocks by the events that occur in their lives, the more comfortable they feel. A person is said to have a stable and mature identity, if this picture is not shaken by what happens in that individual’s existence. Creation of an identity or the emergence of a self-identity refers to that process or event where the person in question begins to relate to this picture consciously and explicitly.

Is this also self-knowledge? This amalgam does contain elements of insights by the person about him/herself. But these are not thought through; they are not the results of deliberate exploration and reflection into oneself. Instead, they are the insights the organism has acquired about itself during the course of its journey through life. Grafted onto this are other odds and ends: the strategies one used as a child, the remembered feelings one has had at different phases in life, a way of holding oneself while alone, different ways (both successful and failed) of going about with people, the vague images of heroes one admired but has since forgotten… In the full sense of the word, it is an assortment of junk that one somehow holds together. This junk is accumulated in the course of one’s life.

What holds this junk together even as an amalgam? Emotions. They cement these odds and ends together and ignorance does the rest: one presupposes that this junk is a coherent picture of some sort or another. One does not know whether this amalgamated junk that we call selfknowledge is coherent; most of us might even suspect that it is not, which is perhaps why we are so afraid of attacks against it. That is why we also get so attached to it. However, the emotion invested in this amalgamated junk makes us think that this is what we are. Hence one of the reasons why we are so sensitive to remarks by others about us: the others remind us nastily that the emperor is naked. Albeit in perverse ways, these others exhibit the truth about this junk: namely, that it is junk. The fact that we get emotional (whether positively or negatively) about this amalgamated junk is the surest indication that emotions hold this junk together. If the emotions did not hold these odds and ends together, two things would have happened: (a) there would be no picture to talk about and (b) the remarks of the others would induce no emotions in us. But the emotions that hold this junk together also blunt the remarks that others make about it through redirection: the other is prejudiced, ignorant, jealous, stupid… Thus, the ideal and mature person that the western psychology talks about has two properties: (i) such a person must know which remarks from others should be recognized (even though painful) as true and (ii) which to redirect. You do not learn these two abilities in order to become a mature person; these abilities are the consequences of your maturity.

What stands in the way of achieving self-knowledge? This amalgamated junk that we call ‘psychological identity’. Having such an identity is not indispensable to be a human being; instead, it stands in the way of becoming one. What prevents self-knowledge is the picture we have of ourselves as individuals.

This picture, this amalgamated junk, is the composite image I talk about. Though it is unclear to the individual whether the image he has of himself is whole or consistent, there is a sense of awareness that it is somehow woven well together. This awareness is brought through the fact that he has stereotypes about himself and their presence generates the impression that the composite image is whole and dynamic. That is to say, the odds and ends present in the composite image are not recognized as ‘odds and ends’; instead, they are seen as contributing towards a coherent image because they latch on to the stereotypes. What kind of stereotypes am I talking about? I have in mind descriptions like the following: ‘I am a successful entrepreneur’; ‘I am a sharp intellectual’; ‘I am a caring mother’; ‘I have an irresistible charisma’; ‘I am a good administrator’ and so on. In some forms of mental depressions and nervous breakdowns, these stereotypes fail to make sense. That is to say, one gets the insight that these descriptions did not (and do not) describe the world (‘oneself’, in this case) and, consequently, fail to make sense any further. However, instead of realizing that such stereotypes could never describe the world, the person thinks that he had the ‘wrong’ insights about himself. Then, the swing goes to the other extreme: if these are the ‘wrong’ insights, then the only ‘right’ ones will have to be their negation. The loss of ‘self-worth’ that often accompanies such depressions is the result of assuming that negative stereotypes are true because the ‘positive’ stereotypes fail to make sense.

Furthermore, because stereotypes appear as self-descriptions, the breaking down of these heuristics appears to damage one’s very ability to go-about with oneself. The more explicitly one depends on the stereotypes, the more severe is the impact of the breakdown: one appears (to oneself as) incapable of going-about with oneself; there is a great anxiety and ‘angst’ because one cannot rely on these stereotypes any longer; one feels paralyzed; and so on. The person suffering from the nervous breakdown does not realize that he has not ceased to go-about with himself but merely that he is doing it in another way. In any case, the more one’s actions in the world ‘fed’ the stereotypes in an earlier period, the more severe is the result of a nervous breakdown. When I speak of ‘feeding’ the stereotypes, I do not mean anything more than the process of strengthening of these stereotypes through one’s action in the world. Such strengthening occurs when one continually relates one’s actions in the world to one’s individual stereotypes.

In the process of constructing a self-identity, an individual chances upon the individual stereotypes present in his culture. Through the socialization process, such a person chooses some stereotypes (while discarding others) and weaves them into a composite image. The transformational property of stereotypes convinces him that these are his essential properties and he goesabout in the world on the basis of this assumption. What prevents him from acquiring selfknowledge is the composite image that hints that it is knitted together because of the presence of stereotypes. In some kinds of depressions, this woven image comes apart.

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