Here’s a little experiment. Imagine someone in each of the following categories: teenager, single mother, gay man, banker, Muslim, conservative Republican, union member, liberal Democrat, Christian. Were you able to conjure up a mental image of each stereotypical character? Whether we admit it or not, we all employ stereotypes constructed by our own experiences and helped along by the culture and its media. Once rooted in our thinking, stereotypes are extremely difficult to change or remove. All of our perceptions will be filtered through our stereotypes.
Two recent examples
While listening to a talk radio program the other day I heard a gentleman call in with a comment something like this, “Democrats are for the middle class and Republicans are for the rich.” Those stereotypes are firmly etched in our national political consciousness. Are they accurate? Doesn’t matter. For some people the perception is the reality.
Willow Creek Community Church is holding its annual Leadership Summit this week. This is a big event featuring high-profile speakers. The CEO of Starbucks was scheduled to speak, but Willow released him from his contract at the last minute because he was under pressure from the gay community. Willow Creek is a Christian church and therefore assumed to be anti-gay. Is that accurate? Doesn’t matter. For some people the perception is the reality.
Both of the above example illustrate how stereotypes can be used in public discourse to obscure facts, to over simplify complexities and to spawn hostility between groups of people. This is not helpful in our already polarized political and cultural environment.
How to challenge stereotypes
If stereotypes arise from efforts to predict behavior and to remove uncertainty, then perhaps it follows that to break down stereotypes we must challenge predictabilty and confuse presumed certainty. High predictability results in low information and with low predictability come high information. So let’s be a little less predictable.
This helpful idea comes from Tim Muehlhoff and Todd V. Lewis in their book Authentic Communication. They point to “Jesus Christ (as) the greatest example of the ‘low predictability, high information’ principle at work” (p. 86). Jesus defied all stereotypes and upset the expectations of just about everyone. He was not the military Messiah that the Jews anticipated, nor was he the political revolutionary that the Romans feared. He befriended those of low social worth and pretty much ignored the trappings of power, status and wealth. His parables consistently challenged the stereotypes of the day. For example, the “expert in the law” to whom Jesus told the famous parable of the Good Samaritan probably viewed Samaritans with contempt as was common among the Jews of Jesus’ day. And Jesus made a Samaritan the hero. To get an idea of what that must have sounded like to Jesus’ audience, imagine telling an authoritative story at a Democratic party convention in which Sarah Palin is the hero. It wouldn’t go over well.
Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek, demonstrated some “low predictability, high information” behavior in his response to the Starbucks incident. In addition to releasing Schultz from his speaking obligation, Hybels wants him to know that he’s welcome at Willow. Then he encouraged those in the audience to stop by a Starbucks to show there are no hard feelings.
Do you think that today’s public discourse is polarized by too much stereotyping? Have you ever had your stereotypes challenged by “low predictability, high information” behavior?