ii. the foundation of stereotypes

For a moment, take a closer look at the French drawing. (Expand it by clicking on the image and view it along side this text.) We see the profile of a bald man with a misshapen head. He is looking sharply to his left out at us, as if he has just become aware of us and is for some reason uncomfortable with, or startled by, our presence.

Apparently each cartoon-like drawing on the head of the man is meant to indicate a Jewish "virtue," as if somehow zones of a person's skull were assigned to certain traits. What stereotype is used to indicate which figure in each panel is Jewish? What are being depicted as the "Jewish virtues?" (Ironically one is selling out to the enemy - Germany in this case, a reference to the allegation made against Dreyfus.) Perhaps the little drawings in the misshapen head would be humorous if they weren't part of such a long and violent history.

As human beings, we seem to have a propensity for dividing ourselves into we and they and for labelling and generalizing about groups whom we consider "other." It is easy to lump them all together with simple stereotypes. What Nazi propaganda did was to exploit this common reservoir of bias and emotion and to play on people's preconceptions of what Jews were. As distressing as it may seem, such banks of preconceptions often overpower reality and win hands down.

Stereotyping has not vanished. We stereotype all the time, although we may not identify it as such. We have stereotypical views of neighborhoods, of racial groups, of ethnicities, of an "in group" and an "out group." We know who they are, but surely that's not a stereotype, we think. But indeed, those are the images and ideas that we first resort to when we think about a group of people, because they are imbedded preconceptions that underlie much of our thinking, often without our even knowing it.

The nature of stereotypes is such that it is always possible to find an example that fits and supports the stereotype. It is the last defense of the biased. What is dishonest about stereotypes is that they extrapolate the exception into the rule.

This is as close as we have come to looking at ourselves in our discussion - not so much as innocent victims of propaganda but rather as possibly unwitting accomplices. It is unlikely that many of us have escaped the trap of labeling, stereotyping, and formulating our own sets of them.

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