nature of self and stereotypes

Chris has written an incredibly well thought-out blog post about stereotypes, and I ended up writing quite a bit in the comments. You should follow the link above and read his post first. (Or just hit the link below to read just my comments.)

Here’s what I ended up writing:

Incredibly well said. You’ve obviously thought about this quite a bit. I especially like your last point because it really made me step back and think about my own opinions on the topic of self. I have undoubtedly said things that are very similar (in spirit) to Patrick’s last quote, and wholeheartedly meant them at the time. In retrospect, what I probably meant was something much more along the lines of “who cares what other people think of you, as long as you’re happy?”, or “make decisions based on what you yourself desire.”

I personally don’t put so much weight on whether something is stereotypical or not. I think there are probably stereotypes that are not actually wholly negative. (I can think of several examples, but because I don’t personally belong to them, it feels wrong for me to use them as examples.) Ah! Maybe a good example is the “geek” stereotype. Clearly there are those who think geekdom is totally stupid, but of course I completely disagree. And I think it would be silly for me (or you) to make decisions — any decisions — based on the perception of that stereotype by you, or anyone else.

All this is not to say we shouldn’t be aware of stereotypes when we make decisions about ourselves. And that, I think, is the point of what you are getting at. Everything we do informs opinions of our “self”, both the opinion that we have of ourselves, and also the opinions others have of our “selves”. We should attempt to be conscious of those opinions, both to try and be the person we want to be intellectually, and also to try to minimize the damage we do to other individuals in our society. (My opinions about how we cannot really avoid damaging other individuals, and how we can really only do our best to avoid that damage are probably subject enough for another blog post entirely.) Anyway, self-consciousness is key. Self-awareness, and a constant attempt to improve our own self-worth. Of course, too much self-awareness borders on self-obsession and narcissism, but I think that’s part of being a poet… and probably part of being an intellectual. (Note that I’m proud to be associated with both of these stereotypes, for better or worse.)

It occurs to me I didn’t really address how this all relates to the homosexual stereotype. I guess I think that there is a probably a difference between a stereotype as self-defined and a stereotype as used to define “other” groups of people. I think the important part of the definition of stereotype is that of an oversimplification, or generalization, regardless of whether you have personal experience with that group.

I think that our negative stereotypes are probably (ridiculously) set in stone. Every time we meet someone gay, we should be updating that model (stereotype) of what we think it means to be gay. Enough exposure, and the stereotype should break down as you realize that “gay people are just like everybody else!”. Of course it’s possible for this to happen, but somehow, that stereotype is often still there, and you either think of the people you’ve met as the exception, or maybe you think that the negative stereotype is the exception. Does this mean it’s not useful (or even harmful) to generalize about gay people, ie stereotype them? Possibly. I don’t really know anymore. I would have said no just a few minutes ago, but now I’m not sure.

Interestingly, you yourself are talking about stereotypical homosexual men in quite a negative light. I wonder if you met enough gay men who didn’t adhere to that stereotype if you would have written this post differently? I would be interested in reading more about what you consider to be the standard traits of “stereotypical gay men”. I’d also be willing to bet money that I know quite a few who do not fit the profile…

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