I was just marvelling at the retina display on my new mac (thank you Santa). I have the background set to cycle through all the pre-loaded pictures and this close up of a lion’s head came up.
I could see each individual hair and I noticed how varied the colours were. If asked I would have said that a lion was ‘brown’ (or ‘dun’ if trying to impress). Yet the hairs ranged from red, through oranges, shades of brown and beige to a near white. Together they appear brown (or dun).
It struck me that we tend to see the world in these generalised terms. Lion’s hair is brown, foreign migrants are benefits cheats, politicians are untrustworthy…. and yet all groups of people are made up of many different ‘coloured hairs’.
Likewise we find a handy label and apply it to individuals and assume it is true in all aspects of their life. ‘Rock star’ conjures up a very different image to ‘father’. Yet many Rock stars are fathers and good ones too (and most migrants are hard working and the occasional politician isn’t a complete fraud). Individuals are also made of many strands to create the aggregate, but we do tend to project a stereotype around a single facet of their being onto them.
Worse still it seems that negative stereotypes hold more power.
If someone deceives you they are a cheat and a liar, they almost certainly have many other redeeming features too. You should not condone the bad behaviour but equally don’t write off the person.
Generalisations help us make sense of a complex world and as such are very handy. Maybe it’s time to see them for what they are and look beyond the label at the individual strands of colour.