Murder by stereotype
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]e have all done it at some stage or other and we continue to do it. We stereotype people and prejudge them by color, race, tribe, or gender and even age and form our preconceived notions about them. For instance, if any of us had some trouble in a strange city, who would we look to for help? Do we studiously avoid people of a certain colour or geographical origin?Oriental people never primarily approach people of other races for help. If they see other Orientals around, they come up to them and say, “Excuse me, do you know if this train is going to Berlin?” or a similar question. Japanese and Chinese tourists, bless their hearts, have no hesitation in approaching and addressing one in perfect Japanese or Chinese as the case may be. But perhaps I am stereotyping. Just because nine out of ten oriental tourists have done that, does not make that a rule. Perhaps the tenth will speak in English. And where shall we go to get rid of our generally accepted stereotype of the Japanese tourist who travels from city to city armed with his camera, forever clicking pictures of places but never pausing to see them, to really see them and enjoy them.
Not sure if it’s an inbuilt defense mechanism in humans but stereotyping can be the death of us. Like it or not, stereotyping was to some extent, behind the murder of six million Jews in the Second World War. The gas chambers at Auschwitz are empty museums today that serve as a warning to future generations. How did one individual manage to stir a nation’s army into committing such atrocities as transporting Jews, and other European nationals in cattle cars and trains to the killing chambers for months and years? He used stereotype as a psychological weapon.
At Birjenau, the train tracks run straight into the camp. On one side of the camp, only brick chimneys stand where German soldiers had tried to burn down the evidence as soon as news of Germany’s defeat reached them. The brick chimneys have survived till today as ironic reminders of man’s cruelty toward man. On the other side of the camp are the cold brick buildings that housed the prisoners who were put to work as long as their health lasted. As hard work and starvation and prison atrocities wore them down, they knew their days were numbered and it was only a matter of time before they followed the rest to the gas chambers. The remainder of the death camp is a grim, silent place where the train tracks end inside the camp. The Polish government has put up an exhibition in one of the main chambers. Hundreds of photographs of the victims including a well-documented show of the newspaper cuttings which evidence Hitler’s policy toward the Polish people. It was the same as his policy toward the Jews. The weak have no right to inherit the land. It is those photographs of real people, men, women, children that bring home the great human tragedy that has happened within the gates of Auschwitz and Birkenau.
Auschwitz is an extreme example of murder by stereotype, but I use it to underline the dangers of stereotyping. How much of tribal antagonism is fuelled by stereotypes? We have allowed the stereotypes to define the individuals. Isn’t that a capital sin? Doesn’t it amount to judging somebody guilty before they are proved innocent?
I think stereotyping is a dangerously fatal habit. We have acquired it as a nation. But we should hasten to rid ourselves of it. Think of it as blinders that prevent us from seeing anything good in people of other races or tribes. It is the kindling that so easily sets off conflicts and continues them.
What if we were to form an opinion of people we meet without the backdrop of stereotype? Wouldn’t that be so refreshing? Not just that, don’t people deserve to be received as they are, sans the judgmentalism that stereotyping imposes on them?