Stereotypes and beyond

Flowing with the seasons it seems natural to resonate the spirit of ‘turning inwards’ just like trees in winter dress are revealing their basic structure. I find myself pounding the question: What is the structure behind stereotypes? How are they serving us, could we possibly live without them and how is their structure interfering with or even creating our ‘reality’? Look at the picture below…

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What do you see? A bride, a muslima, both? They both wear a head dress…

Being trained as a social psychologist I know for a fact that there are lots of advantages in cherishing stereotypes. By using stereotypes the world is more easy to grasp. Stereotyping is a way to reduce the amount of information in the world around us. It helps us to categorize our complex world and basically functions to save time and energy to help us act more efficiently.  I remember facilitating an intercultural workshop where the participants were enjoying to act out their own national stereotypes creating a lot of laughter and mutual understanding in the group. It certainly is more constructive to present your own stereotype rather than to be stereotyped and framed by someone else.

Also stereotyping supports the need to identify or distinguish to what group you belong or want to belong to (in-group) or to what group you don’t want to be part of (out-group). It might be this principle that lies behind the great success of social media. Stereotyping helps you in one way to relax, as it is nourishing to know with whom you share a common ground. On the other hand it helps you in a great way to dethrone ‘the other’ you clearly differ from. An inspiring example is the late article of Abdelkader Benali in the New York Times: ‘East is West,’ is his motto.

Yet stereotypes can also have a negative effect as they not only discriminate (between) people but also shape the future. Looking at the world today lets take Syria as an example. During my lectures I ask the audience to close their eyes and think of a Syrian. What comes to the minds eye first is often two images. The Syrian as a refugee (a victim) or as a jihadist (a fighter). Then I present the following image with the question: Do you know who this is?

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The answer: Steve Jobs. Did you know his father was a Syrian? Most of the audiences don’t know this. Wouldn’t it be great to connect to this positive stereotype? The Syrian American Steve Jobs who used to be one of the most successful businessmen in the world? The Syrians are famous for this traders stereotype, the result of an old culture that for many thousands of years has been able to transcend differences between people either religiously or culturally, transforming these differences into a living mosaic. I have noticed that every time I relate to this positive stereotype it offers a glimpse of hope and trust that even this very dark time in Syria will pass by, trusting the Syrian people will be able to create a Syria that offers a hopeful future for all in the end.

Following the intercultural debate lots of scholars and artists try to wake us up concerning stereotypes. Their pictures, cartoons and visual aids are indispensable in breaking stereotypes and dismantling preconceived ideas. I came across Shirin Mirachor who tries to take you beyond stereotypes in her work: What is it you actually see? Is it a hipster or a muslim? Both? Are you able to identify who is who?

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Or more recently after the attack in Paris. In the debate unfolding I was moved to find this:

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Just a few hours after the attack March Lebanon came up with the image above. Is it showing a synthesis, an attempt to stay unified after this act of terror that was aimed at creating division? Is all forgiven now, when we see a crying Mohammad in the first edition of CharlieHebdo after the Paris attack? ‘The best weapon against fanatics is satire,’ writes March Lebanon. Clearly the debate didn’t only give insight into a lot of differences and stereotypes and yet at the same time inspired the need to unify and distinguish between groups and individuals, between religion and terror.

The importance of stereotypes remains, yet it is vital to be aware of the dynamics behind them. What you see might not be what the other person sees… What you see doesn’t only depend on the context you are living in, but can also be defined from the angle you are looking from.

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Over Esseline van de Sande

Opmerkelijke Ontmoetingen Wondrous Encounters
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