Thursday, October 17, 2013

Stereotype Within a Stereotype

As we all know, conservatives hate poor people.

Obviously, there is a connection between being poor and not having a decent job. When I was a liberal, the big joke was about "boot-strappy" Repubs who thought everyone should be able to come up regardless of social injustices, their complete irrationality on the subject, and the essential hatred of the poor that they seemed to savor like a glass of fine Thunderbird. Oh yeah, and racism.

That's painting with kind of a broad brush, isn't it?

The Story from the Other Side

I've spent time with the people who are affected by these issues. I know few people, regardless of political persuasion, who think it's typically as simple as expecting the government to hand them free money; those in dire straits are fully aware that they need to work. That much is clear, although the kind of work they think they should be doing often is not. I've also known people who failed before, who fail habitually, and the pattern is quite predictable. See if you can relate:
  • You need a job.
  • You look for a good job first, pass on a couple of bad ones, until you realize that for whatever reason, most jobs you're looking at are not going to be what you've been dreaming of. So you apply for the better of the bad ones, the jobs where you might stand a chance of finding something good about it.
  • You find a job that looks like it might be tolerable.
  • You start work. It's okay for a while, maybe even enjoyable to be doing something with purpose, meeting new people, making money. You have a job, which is better than not having a job, and you can do this. There's a sort of honeymoon period where you get to know a few of your coworkers, and they're good people, and you can handle it. This lasts for maybe a month or two.
  • Despite our best efforts to change corporate management to be more sympathetic and give out more breaks and treats and compliments and generally be easygoing, tricking the worker into thinking that they earn deep respect for work that a terrapin can do, the boss remains the boss and replaceable employees remain replaceable. The boss might be the owner or manager; either way, they are invested in the continued competitive functioning of the business, and end up demanding things that seem increasingly asinine. The boss starts to push harder, and the butting of heads commences. You come home tired as hell every day, possibly angry. Your social life and your hobbies have suffered. You realize the job is boring, repetitive, annoying, and in lot of ways, a dead end. You will never be president of the company, and if you don't watch out, you might be here at sixty.
  • Eventually, you start taking shortcuts, getting irritated more easily, really hating that you have to go in every day. You draw more lines in the sand. This is you after the honeymoon, the real you. Everyone's a bit different, but if you hold the slightest self-esteem, the idea of doing this shit forever will start to grate on your imagination and make you feel like a failure. Suddenly, you're a douche to work with. You might have problems with telling people off. You might have problems with being late or absent for your shifts. People won't be able to depend on you.
  • Now the boss should theoretically have to fire you, but that's a hassle bureaucratically, so they will alternately start scheduling you for less hours. Much less. Eventually, you no longer have a job in any relevant sense. You will likely quit, sometimes spectacularly, and feel totally justified in doing so, although the money questions remain in the back of your mind. 
  • Rinse, repeat.
I have a point in laying these basic dynamics out here: conservatives understand this. We've been there. It's not that conservatives don't get tempted to tell the boss to lick balls or tell the customer to toss his own salad. We may have done it before, albeit not so much as adults with people needing us to bring home the cash. Conservatives might be less likely to take stupid risks, less likely to quit impulsively, hoping and wishing that things work out and that a bad job is a stepping stone to a good job in our personal life narratives. It's a less romantic worldview, one more bound by duty and pragmatism.

This stereotype of conservatives being made up of rich people and stupid rednecks who are incapable of "getting it", of comprehending and empathizing with the pressures and stress and trials of being an adult who just needs a break, isn't true.

People already get lots of breaks, and the conservative recognizes a point where the excuses have to stop. Adults with people relying on them must keep going, even if things suck. Justice in vocation is not a matter of good versus evil; there are jobs that satisfy so deeply that it becomes your life, and jobs that are pure, unrelenting torture. This is a continuum, almost all work falls within these boundaries, and the actual calibrating of this continuum is deeply subjective.

Grown-ups know the game. At about two months in to a daily-grind job, that's when character has to show. You either have to find a way to use your off-time productively to find something better, or you get used to where you are. Keep showing up, make friends, get used to it. Even the latter option is not the end of the world. You can get comfortable, and maybe accept the reality that most humans have had to accept:

Work sucks. They would not pay you to come in if they could get someone to do it for free.

But you can embrace a life where you work to live, instead of living to work. No one lives to work at Arby's, but you can eat and pay rent even on that wage. It would be massively unfair if those who stomach this were treated equally to those that won't. Being too merciful about this basic expectation causes problems: The days of people valuing work enough to stay for long periods and build seniority are over, keeping wages down and giving rise to credentialism. The system should not devalue the good fortune of getting a steady job that pays your bills. It cannot turn support for those who quit into an entitlement; there has to be a threat of some kind. There's a logic here.

Second-Order Stereotyping

Liberals don't look at conservative thought as having any sophistication. What you might notice about this is that to explain the lack of support for policies which benefit the poor and unemployed, liberals have created a narrative about conservatives which demeans them. This narrative relies on the conservatives holding their own false stereotypes (poor people are lazy and deserve it), and explaining why anyone would have such a stereotype by stereotyping the stereotypers (they really just hate minorities). Liberals think of themselves as the people fighting against stereotypes, but the general presence of the stereotype within a stereotype, like Russian matroshka dolls, runs mad among them.

They love their snarky little cut-downs. You might have heard these things before:

They say that those who seem to have a problem with gay people are actually repressed homosexuals themselves.

They say that people who don't want the rich to be taxed want to become rich themselves one day and are operating under an especially stupid form of self-interest.

They say that if you have a problem with affirmative action or if you own a gun, then you're afraid of black people. If you spend time learning to use that gun, then you're a Solid Snake wannabe who's aching to start a fight, and without that gun, you're still very much afraid of black people.

They say those who subscribe to religions which promote severe discipline are people who have some kind of mental disorder that keeps them from being happy.

They say that conservatives simply hate women, or are afraid of them, or just need to get laid, or all of these at the same time.

Actually, ask around, and you might find that most conservatives weren't hugged enough as children. The spankings probably fucked 'em up. Something something abuse... Or maybe it's just in their genes. Meanwhile, whoever the conservatives stand against becomes almost saint-like.

This is stereotyping assumed to be so rampant that it creates second-order effects. We all know that the anti-discrimination legislation was passed with full knowledge that Americans were so heavily programmed to look down on everyone not white, male, rich, straight, and Christian that they were incapable of thought. Accepting that view is just part of the propaganda war that comes with living in a democratic society.

The liberal stereotypes usually focus on emotions, as liberals over-value emotions: if the conservative doesn't support their positions - which is to say, positions that move society more towards an individualist egalitarian vision that cares about people's emotions more - then it's because of fear or hate. The only better buzzword is ignorance, which appeals to the ego of anyone who wants to feel like a well-informed part of the solution. If it marginalizes arguments from the other side by putting images of dysfunctional people in the heads of the public, then they will support it. Like every other political and ideological side ever, they push the notion that what they believe is common sense truth while the other side is a big, steaming plate of hot garbage that could only have been created by subhumans looking to justify what Jim Goad calls "gleeful assholery".

But let's call this what it is, and I don't just mean calling out the propaganda war aspect or the childishness of liberal utopianism. The basis for the denigrating nature of these comments is the idea that stereotyping is always bad. But is that actually the case?

Since I stereotype with abandon on this here blog, you might have figured out that I answer NO to this question. Stereotyping is the mind organizing its environment by classifying discrete units into like groups and noticing patterns of behavior, which also just happens to be the basis upon which all knowledge is formed. Most of the time, our stereotypes exist because we accurately see things. We see that douchebags wear super-deep V-necks, that you can tell a vapid skank by the tramp stamp, hooker shoes, and tanning bed overload. There are exceptions to all these rules, but you won't go broke gambling on these appearances lining up with reality. Stereotypes are an inevitable consequences of people having an openly shared sense of identity, and being part of any group acts as a check on behavior because it motivates people to stay out of trouble and not look stupid, even people who don't have anything to lose personally. If you've ever represented any group anywhere, you understand this. Making your family, friends, alma mater, company, church, or anyone you care about look like shit is deeply dishonorable.

We hate stereotypes because we are supposed to be culturally individualist first, and that individualism translates into a deep suspicion and loathing of the idea that people can be typecast. You shouldn't even think about it: the signals given off by appearances should always be ignored. But we observe our world, and so long as we do, we make these kinds of assessments.

When the general assessments don't work, there are problems. Racism, in particular, has been a problem here. No matter what the IQ stats say, and no matter how screwed up black culture looks, there are unarguably decent and intelligent black people who get screwed on any first impression because they get tarred by the same brush as others who share their skin color. Trying to solve this by continuing to lump blacks together in rhetoric and policy holds drawbacks, but at least the problem was clear, considering America's philosophy of individualism.

But individualism didn't always mean that you couldn't think, and the race issue kicked off a whole host of "reject all stereotypes" thinking that is past its expiration date and needs to be rethought. There are times when you can make some generalizations. People who are a part of voluntary groups who develop a reputations shouldn't complain so long as they have the prerogative to leave. Getting criticized for the company you voluntarily keep is not stupid, as your voluntary actions mean something. Homosexuality, for anyone who values the idea of passing on their family line, will never be equal to heterosexuality for obvious practical reasons. For women who don't like the gender roles, the positives that come with specialization of the sexes need to be given very serious consideration before the old ways get abandoned. This is the most obviously necessary case where pure individualism needs to be abandoned.

Actually, for any society to function, pure individualism needs to be abandoned. Expectations need to exist. Conditioning needs to be done. You are a part of a system with incentives that have been worked out. No one wants to be the asshole telling the kids to get back to work and pack the gears, but driving people to fall into social roles through real, effective and affecting consequences is a good long-run strategy for keeping life from sucking any more than it has to. The world is not a playground, and this view is not the result of stereotyping or bigotry. It's the result of seeing reality, all of it, including the parts that don't look so nice. Someone has to do it.

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