Monday, August 18, 2008

Stereotyping Cockroaches

I killed a cockroach the other day. In a large apartment building in Chicago, that’s hardly a newsworthy event. Actually, there has been a marked drop-off in the cockroach population of my building of late, for reasons known only to the cockroaches.

But the point in reporting the fact that I’d killed a cockroach is that I sincerely felt guilty about it the instant I did it. What right did I have to take its life? It was just strolling across the bathroom wall, minding its own business and had made no aggressive or threatening gestures toward me. In fact, I can’t even be sure he knew I was there. But I killed him anyway.

The justification/rationalization is the usual yattata-yattata “carrier of germs/spreader of disease” stereotyping that’s been drilled into our heads since we were kids. And in theory, it makes sense. But in practice, when it was just one cockroach going about his business, what real justification could I offer for killing it?

I read somewhere that when presented with a number of similar items—marbles, say, or cockroaches—people tend to overestimate numbers up to 100, and underestimate numbers over 100. I’m not sure why this should be, just as I am not sure why a great number of things should be, but it is a proven fact. And it is also far easier to hate a group than it is to hate a specific individual from that group.

Stereotyping is a most convenient way to eliminate the necessity for independent questioning and thought. The world has always relied on stereotypes to tell it how to react to the unfamiliar. Jews are sneaky. Ok. Blacks are lazy. Ok. The Irish are the scum of the earth. (This was very popular at the time the Irish began their mass immigration to our larger cities, but faded rather rapidly.) But Ok, if you say so. Gay men lust after and prey upon young boys. Ok. (Booooo, Gays!)

Societal changes occur when it slowly dawns on people that they can no longer buy into the stereotypes they’ve been force-fed (granted, often with little or no resistence). Racial stereotyping began to fade as individuals in the majority began to be exposed to actual Negroes/Blacks/African-Americans and to realize that people are simply people. It’s frustrating and utterly illogical that this same process has to be repeated with every minority that comes along. But eventually, after untold thousands or millions have suffered unconscionable hardship, things do change. Interracial couples on TV and in the movies? So? What’s the big deal? Asking that same question 50 years ago would have gotten a rather sharply different answer.

The same thing is happening, albeit far too slowly, with gays. As more “average” people realize that they personally know a real, live homosexual who does not fit the “faggot” or “bull dyke” stereotypes they’ve cherished all these years, the harder it is to lump together all gays into one stereotypical clump.

The very word “stereotypes” is almost always synonymous with “negative”. Stereotypes are the lumps in the gravy of humanity and have to be smoothed out.

And while the mention of “gravy” and “cockroaches” in succeeding sentences is not ideal, I guess the purpose of this entire blog is that I was stereotyping that poor creature strolling across the wall, and as so often happens with those targeted by stereotyping, he paid dearly for that prejudice.

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