Monday, January 21

Avoiding Stereotypes: The Color Of Ideology

No one really knows what Martin Luther King, Jr. would have thought had he lived to see the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (Aug. 28, 1963). On one hand, Americans had not only elected but re-elected the first African-American President. On the other, it has created one of the most divisive socio-economic-political climates since President Abraham Lincoln.

I, for one, would like to think he would stand by the lines delivered in the I Have A Dream speech, holding firm to his conviction that people not be judged except by the content of their character. For although racism has largely been abolished in the hearts and minds of a majority, the propensity of humankind to divide has reached a crescendo on dozens of other fronts, ranging from the values people hold to the rights they are willing to defend as part of the definition of freedom.

Whereas in the era of Martin Luther King, Jr., people were unjustly and commonly segregated by the color of their skin, hate speech and stereotypes have found a new home that often ignores the color of our skin and ravishes us instead for religious views, political leanings, and urban-rural localities. While few people would defend hate speech aimed at racial heritage and cultural identity, it has somehow become accepted to characterize some religions as deserving censor, some political parties as callous, gun owners as redneck bigots, and even whether they take notes on a notepad or laptop. And today, rather than enacting segregation in schools, most of it takes place in news outlets and social networks.

So let's be clear. Stereotypes are ignorant, regardless of righteousness. 

A stereotype is a thought about a specific group of individuals that is used to forward the belief that a single commonality about that group can accurately define all characteristics about that group, usually intended to cause others to emotionally react to the naming of the group with good or bad prejudice.

In the past, it was most commonly associated with heritage. Today, it's most commonly associated with ideology and identity. But what hasn't changed is: they are almost always wrong, especially when they are used to dehumanize people; they are exceptionally damaging, especially if we accept derogatory stereotypes that other people assign us; and they are hardwired into our brains, which means we have to be ever vigilant in dismantling almost all of them.

Some people are surprised anytime it is suggested that we are hardwired to invent stereotypes; the truth to it is scientific. Our brains invent stereotypes in order to make our world less cognitively demanding. It's all tied to cognitive psychology, which was always my favorite sub-discipline of psychology (and one of the most useful for communicators and marketers).

Cognitive psychology delves into how people perceive, remember, think, speak, and solve problems. And one of the mental processes is how we categorize and compartmentalize information. For example, when we learn fire is hot, we categorize it as something that can burn us. Later, when we learn an oven or stovetop can be hot, we might put it into the same category. We need it to survive.

But then something happens sometime between junior high school and high school. Our cognitive processes begin to take on more abstract forms as we begin to define our world based on arduous notions not much better than The Breakfast Club, a film about five high school stereotypes — jock, geek, stoner, outcast, and socialite — who find temporary common ground around being detainees.

Unfortunately, few people ever really evolve from these baseless social roles. They simply trade them in for new ones, making the world easier to understand even if this understanding is flawed. Worse, we sometimes compound the problem by pursuing the characteristics of stereotypes that we want to belong too, making them seem all the more valid, and creating campaigns to prove they are true and desirable.

The evolution of cognitive thinking relies on individual character. 

There is one simple reason that I tend to attract diversity among friends and associates. Much like their heritage, their ideologies mean less to me than how they behave and treat others, especially those they seem ideologically opposed to across any number of socio-economic-political issues.

And for that, I grant them equal tolerance even as we disagree, especially if we can maintain a relationship without having to dress up in a costume and, most assuredly, if we can agree not to censor or subjugate other people's rights, property, and values. It's called respect. It's called refusing to drink from the cup of bitterness and hatred. It's called character, built on trust and understanding that all men and women are created equal without being forced to carry the loadstones of ancestry and stereotype.

That's my dream. And while I could be wrong, I would like to think it was Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream too — that the flaws of one character within a thinly connected group ought not be used as a weapon to vilify each and every perceived associate. This is, after all, America, a place where we are supposed to be uniquely accountable to our own behaviors and actions and deserve to be judged according to our character and not the behaviors or actions that people attempt to assign us.

That said, it is my dream that people think twice before embracing hate speech and stereotypes, carelessly sharing and spreading such messages across their social connections without any thought of the disparagement they might cause others because underneath it all, no matter how we divide people, we really are all brothers and sisters of the human race. And so, in observance of Martin Luther King Jr. day, good night and good luck.
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