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Stereotyping Made Easy

Decline and Fall

By Ross G. Douthat

Some people go to Cancun for spring break. Or Barbados. Or Southern California. Or any one of a dozen places where the sun blisters down and the women are fine and deliciously easy.

I envy those people. Unlike them, I contrived to spend the last week at home in semi-charming southern Connecticut, where the rain washes down and the women are, well, pasty and uncommonly ugly.

Now I know, that's not entirely fair to Connecticut females. In fact, it's a dreadful, horrible, recklessly awful generalization. So let me immediately backtrack, backpedal and otherwise retract what I just said, lest the lovely, gorgeous, impeccably attractive ladies of my home state rise up, march to Cambridge, seize every copy of this fine paper and put it to the torch in protest.

Because we wouldn't want that, now would we? And an apology--well, it's pretty easy, isn't it? Especially given the fact that in daring to suggest, without benefit of exhaustive research or even statistical sampling, that most of the women from my neck of the woods are frightfully unappealing, I was guilty of employing--drumroll, please--a stereotype. And as we are all taught, from our mother's teat to the nursing home feeding tube, there is nothing worse, absolutely nothing, than the use of a stereotype in print. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

How can we tell if something is a stereotype, one might ask? Well, there's a pretty simple test--it's a stereotype if it offends a group of wonderful, intelligent, virtuous people. Like, say, southern Connecticut females. Or Mongolian nomads. Or retired Soviet cosmonauts. Or Harvard Asians.

To illustrate, we'll take the last group--just for the sake of argument, you understand. If I wanted to set about offending Harvard Asians (not that anyone would, mind you), I might draw a comic strip that contained an Asian-American character who happened to go to Harvard. We'll call him, er, "Mr. Wu." And then I might refuse to make this "Mr. Wu" perfect--I'd give him a flaw or two, like pronounced flatulence or a fondness for reading Foucault and Derrida in his spare time.

If I did that, you see, everyone reading my strip--we'll call it the "The Post-Modern Mr. Wu"--would automatically assume that crikey, this strip implies that all Asians are flatulent and read European deconstructionist writings in their spare time! And they would be offended by that implication. (I know I would be.) And apologies would be in order.

But this is small-scale stereotyping. If I really wanted to offend Harvard Asians, I might sit down and write an article in which I was, well, a tad critical of the Asian community. For instance, I might suggest that there was, let's say, a slight trend toward ethnic self-segregation, or a slight proclivity for the sciences over the humanities among Asian-Americans. And I might, if I were so inclined (not that anyone would be), get downright nasty and suggest that a large chunk of these self-segregated, math-and-science types are self-absorbed, clannish and downright weird.

But this is all pretty fantastic, I admit. It's hard to imagine anyone writing such a thing, since it would obviously offend some people, and would therefore be wrong. Very wrong. So wrong, in fact, that the publication that printed such offensive dreck could hardly apologize fast enough for its terrible sin.

Now perhaps there is someone in the audience--some fresh-faced first-year journalist, maybe, bright-eyed and ink-stained--who is made uncomfortable by this crushing code of inoffensiveness. Can we never print anything wild and outrageous? he asks plaintively. Must all our writing be little more than mush and dreary pabulum?

To him I say, fear not! There are still many people out there who cannot be offended, who are fair game for the slings and arrows of outrageous writers! These include many disparate and exciting groups: evangelical Christians, members of Final Clubs, WASPs, Republicans, the members of the Harvard Corporation and yes, the English. With these perfectly pernicious punching bags as targets, young journalist, you may whale away! Nary a peep will be made on their behalf, because (being evil, and predestined for hell) they deserve what they get.

But when it comes to the good, the virtuous, and the kind--like the women of New Haven County, or the Asians of Harvard--bite back those offensive words, and curb that naughty pen! For unless you are prepared to prove every jot and tittle of your case, by calling on reams of statistics and endless interviews that prove, conclusively, that many Asians self-segregate or many Southern Connecticut maidens break mirrors by looking in them--well, then you are guilty of employing a stereotype, and whatever gods there are will have no mercy on your soul.

And rest assured, whoever dares to run your words will apologize. Maybe even twice.

Ross G. Douthat '02 is a history and literature concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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