On countless occasions I have been asked a question like: ‘Do you like children?’ or ‘Do you like dogs?’ Each time my answer has invariably been greeted by a sigh of frustration as if, somehow, I’m avoiding the question. My reply is that I like some children and not others (the same with dogs). Because I do not care to generalise my questioner cannot designate me as a ‘dog lover’ or someone who gets on with children. The need to generalise or ‘stereotype’ a person seems to be at the very heart of a popular conception of identity. Although these examples are trivial, unfortunately this need sometimes transfers itself to cultural, racial or gender descriptions. If people have personal trouble with a racial or cultural minority this is quite likely to affect their view of the whole group or culture. A woman once complained bitterly about the noise generated by the ‘Nigerians’ next door, forgetting that indigenous people can also be bad neighbours. My contention has always been that there exists ‘the Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ in all cultures and races.
The same cannot readily be said about politics – it is hard to find some redeeming feature in Fascism and its adherents since, in most part, the whole ideology is based on racial stereotypes. Perhaps this represents the ultimate ideological destination for anyone who persists in seeing others in this simplistic way? Another side effect of this kind of relationship with people is what is sometimes called ‘internalisation.’ A person comes to believe his or her own stereotype. If you are a male of a big build you must be ‘tough’ and ‘macho’; if you are a ‘pretty’ woman you must be delicate and feminine, etc. One of the most pernicious examples of this is when someone is persistently referred to as ‘thick’ or unintelligent, resulting in an intellectual insecurity, where they come to believe it themselves and so cease to develop.
The working class have always been told that they do not understand the complexities of the world and so need leaders to tell them what to do – and many have come to believe this nonsense. The reader may have noticed the use of a generalisation in that last statement – the term ‘working class’. Is this a meaningless stereotype used by socialists in their propaganda? Indeed, is it ever productive to make such a designation of a group of people in society?
The cult of ‘individualism’ would seem to ‘personify’ the opposite perspective to the stereotyping I have just been condemning. Paradoxically, when I speak with most people, who nearly all think of themselves as individuals, they articulate the very same stereotyping, as outlined earlier, in their political thoughts. If you consider this in any depth it becomes obvious that what individualism really means in a capitalist context is usually merely consumerism. So-called individualism is simply political conformism and any rejection of it makes you truly individual!
So by emphasising what we all have in common rather than what divides us socialists advocate a society where true individualism is really possible. The revolution will forever end the class struggle and humanity will no longer be divided into the parasites and the exploited (the ultimate stereotypes). The primary motivation for the propaganda of individualism is to weaken class consciousness within the majority. There is no such lack within the ruling class who always act together against any threat to their wealth and power (one reason for the existence of the Tory party). How is this propagation of conformity masquerading as individualism achieved? One of its main vehicles, unsurprisingly, is the media. Drama especially, on TV, radio and movies almost always contains stereotyped characters – the ’soap operas’ being a supreme example.
As we have seen, many people characterise others in terms of stereotypes but themselves as individuals. Emotional alliances with people are mainly achieved by their identification with the ego – partners, children, parents etc. In other words people are seen primarily as extensions of the self. If their appearance or values and behaviour are very different from the self, they become the ‘other’ which invariably leads to suspicion and competition. These alliances and the inevitable betrayals are the fodder of soap operas. We use the term ’inevitable betrayals’ because if you only identify with another in terms of your own needs then a tension will be caused by the expression of the other person’s needs.
This is a basic contradiction within capitalist culture – your individualism depends on other peoples’ suppression of their own. This is a reflection of consumerism since your choices condemn others and yourself to the unending quest for fulfilment through the products of alienated labour. Relationships become commodities with labels on them like ‘love’, ‘security’, ‘status’ and ‘success’. Within such dramas this endless cycle of the quest for relationships, money and power –and the inevitable failure, is repeated again and again. This, by implication, is the human condition with seemingly no consciousness of the use of stereotypes to emphasise capitalist values let alone the possibility of an alternative. So this is the model that many use to understand themselves. Depressing in the extreme, but fortunately some drama does exist that, at least partially, is conscious of these contradictions.
Recently I watched a film about a ‘whistle blower’ within the tobacco industry. He was aware that nicotine had been added to make the cigarettes more addictive. What followed was a drama about the security of his family versus his need to produce something of value (a definition of our humanity). This was an extreme example because cigarettes can and do kill people but the basic stereotypes of family man, loyal employee and citizen were examined.
There is a tradition in Hollywood movies of the ‘David and Goliath’ narratives where the persecuted underdog is successful in taking on the big bad corporations –something that rarely, if ever, happens in real life. But the majority in America desperately need to believe in justice and, given its absence in their everyday life, Hollywood provides it. This is, of course, the need that socialists depend on for the majority to get off their knees and make it a reality. Stereotyping others helps to prevent the consciousness of what all of us need – respect and comradeship. Without that we can never be truly human.