Good Relations in 2020? Seeing Beyond Stereotypes

By John Halford

John Halford

Our usual reaction to 'stereotyping' is that it is negative and unhelpful. But is that always true?

From 1995 until 2002, I was the Worldwide Church of God (now GCI) Regional Director for Europe. It was an interesting, but challenging position, encompassing nearly thirty countries, each with their own, very individual languages and customs.

One book I kept by my desk was 'The Europeans' by an Italian journalist, Luigi Barzini. In some ways the book was dated. It was written in the early eighties before the collapse of European communism. But that did not really detract from the central theme – an analysis of the personality and proclivities of several major European nations.

There were chapters with titles like 'The Imperturbable British', 'The Quarrelsome French', 'The Careful Dutch', 'The Flexible Italians' and so on.

Today, stereotyping people like that can get you in trouble. But, politically correctness notwithstanding, I found that Barzini's stereotypes were accurate and quite helpful as I tried to serve the many different cultures and personalities of Europe.

I learned that Dutch people were cautious about change, and needed time to think things through. I often found myself engaged in very spirited discussions with my French friends. But unlike an Anglo-Saxon row, there were never residual hard feelings, and we'd finish a lively evening with a cheerful midnight meal. The Italians were certainly flexible, which meant they usually found a way to look on the bright side. No matter how I felt when I arrived, I can never remember leaving Italy feeling depressed.

As for the imperturbable British, I discovered that after ten years living in Australia and another seventeen in the USA, I had forgotten how infuriatingly calm my fellow countrymen could be under pressure. In Barzini's words 'The Englishman's mind works best when it is almost too late'.

OK – those are stereotypical descriptions. A stereotype can be a problem if it becomes the lazy person's shortcut to forming an impression. No stereotype describes everyone in a people group, and not even any one individual all of the time. But Barzini's stereotypes described enough of the people, enough of the time to be helpful in understanding some aspects of a nation or an ethnic group.

Is there a problem with that?

There is. You'd better be careful how you use stereotypes. Every now and then you hear of a prominent person who has landed his or herself in hot water, and had to apologize, or even resign, because of some unguarded comment about this or that minority group. Imagine the trouble the Apostle Paul would have been in if he had made his stereotypical statement about the people of Crete today. "Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons," he said, quoting one of their own poets (Titus 1:12). He then made matters worse by ending 'This testimony is true' (v. 13).

Ouch! The testimony may have been true, just as some stereotypes are now, and everyone recognized the truth of it. But today, the tyranny of political correctness dictates that you mustn't say things like that. Our preoccupation with political correctness can actually block the understanding that is so important in the reconciliation process.

It is a fact of life that the various peoples who make up our human family do have distinctive talents, proclivities, strengths and weaknesses. Some people are better than others at some things, and not as good at other things. That does not make them of greater or lesser value. As Mark Twain once said 'Everyone is ignorant – just about different things'.

It is a pity that stereotypes have got a bad name. The word was originally printing term, used to describe a plate that was an exact copy of the original. But if you consider how we use the word 'stereo' today, stereotype can be quite a helpful term. Something in 'stereo' is presumed to be more realistic, and have more depth or a fuller sound. It is the contrast to 'monaural' music or a 'two dimensional' picture. A stereo view has added perspective. It gives a better sense of what is really there.

When Paul reminded the church in Crete of their stereotype, he was not writing them off. He didn't tell Titus 'Don't bother with those people. They're nothing but a bunch of greedy liars.' Politically correct or not, he was asking them to recognize a potentially negative proclivity that they, as a group tended to have. Because he valued them as fellow human beings, and fellow Christians, he wanted to help them.

A stereotype can be a helpful insight, providing it is not used as an excuse to place a value on a human being's worth. There is one exception to that, as is made clear by another politically incorrect stereotype from Paul. "All have sinned and come short of the glory of God," he said (Romans 3:23).

In other words, God, brushing aside all individual excuses, stereotypically concludes that we are all sinners. It doesn't matter if we are careful, quarrelsome, flexible, 'liars and gluttons', or even imperturbable. We are all unworthy of eternal life. And so God stereotypically reconciles us all to himself by accepting the same price for everyone – the life of Jesus.

(John Halford was a well-read journalist and pastor and many of his insights live on in those who knew him.)