Learning and Stereotypes

Several months ago, I introduced a serious Korean student to the original Twilight Zone series, and she has predictably fallen in love with its abundant examples of popular drama written, directed, and performed at a level that, seen from today’s deteriorated context, seems almost to be itself a product of some sort of twilight zone of popular art, an impossible world of moral clarity and allegorical depth that nevertheless feels more real than all the quotidian emptiness that passes for television drama today, not to mention all the bloated digital nihilism of modern cinema.

Among the many fascinations of Rod Serling’s legendary series, one peculiar point of interest for my Korean Twilight Zone initiate is the show’s endless litany of intriguing linguistic and visual details of early nineteen-sixties Americana, which would seem a foreign world not only for an inquisitive Asian viewer, but even for most young North Americans today, given how radically America has changed, and specifically how much it has lost, in the intervening decades of decay. In one recent communication, my student remarked with some bemusement that she sometimes mistakenly believes that a particular small-town house exterior from this or that episode is being reused in a subsequent episode, because the show’s typical middle class houses, spacious front yards, and tidy sidewalks — often seen in Serling’s more personally reflective episodes — all look so similar to her, although upon careful comparison of the images side by side she is able to detect differences.

Here, with some slight embellishments, is my reply to that interesting observation.

Since you have lived all your life in Korea, and have never visited a small town in the U.S., these houses would look unusual and unfamiliar to you. Therefore, when you see two such old-fashioned American houses of similar size, with wood siding and other common features, it is natural that you might think they could be the same house. You don’t have much experience to compare them to. And as for the foreground similarity, that would be another example of looking at unfamiliar things and imagining they look the same because they are unfamiliar in a similar way. In this case, the large front yards and boulevards, with the houses set back from the road, and wide lawns between the sidewalks and the houses, look almost indistinguishable to you, because you never see such neighborhoods in Korea. In North America by contrast, it is quite normal, in small towns or older residential neighborhoods in cities, for many houses to be set back from the road and have large, open front lawns.

This raises an interesting point about perception and experience. Any two objects seen from a great enough distance will look fundamentally similar. The closer we get, the more differences we will begin to discern. The same is true with mental distance. The unfamiliar tends to group itself together in our minds, naturally. As we get to know individual instances within the group, they separate themselves from this new generality in our minds, and we see how they are different. As we get to know any of these instances intimately, we can finally see detailed differences that perhaps no one else would notice. For example, if you see your backpack sitting next to another one that is the same style and brand, you will probably know which one is yours immediately, because it is worn out in a certain place, or has a specific mark or stain on the side, which you cannot miss because you see your backpack every day, although another person might not be able to see any difference between the two bags at all; they will look indistinguishably similar to someone who lacks your intimate knowledge. Another example: When I worked at a children’s academy, I taught identical twin boys. As I taught them for a couple of years, often five days a week, I came to know them very well. They had different personalities, which affected how they sat, how they spoke, and how they moved their eyes in the classroom. I could always tell them apart easily, and would never mistake them for one another. But if someone walked into the class and met them for the first time, without any context, he might well wonder, “How can you tell them apart?”

In fact, a lot of what we progressive moderns condemn as “racist stereotypes” would properly be explained in this way too, for the same reason: familiarity vs. unfamiliarity. When we encounter people whose outward characteristics are unfamiliar to our experience, we tend to notice first how they are similar to one another. This is natural, and gives us our first categories of description for the unfamiliar objects. If we come to experience a number of these people more closely and in a variety of contexts, or even become intimately familiar with some of them, we naturally move beyond the group categorizations and start to define the individuals according to the nuances that we have seen in them, which may be different from everyone else. But this does not mean the early stage of awareness is “racism,” and the later stages are morally superior. Rather, it is just an instance of the normal development of knowledge. We learn to observe subtle differences, distinctions, and exceptions through experience. Without (or prior to) that experience, we naturally group things together, because the mind is always trying to make sense of its observations as well as it can. With limited contexts for observation, we notice basic and general things. With more specific input from experience, we separate individual things more and more from the generalized picture.

Progressives always use the word “stereotype” as an accusation, a moral criticism. “You are using a stereotype so you are a bad person!” But in fact, most stereotypes are rooted in some experience, although of course they are simplifications or over-generalizations, because they arise from limited experience, or experience confined to a narrow context. Precise differentiation and nuanced distinction are natural goals of human thought, but they are by no means automatic or inevitable. Much experience and effort are required, and the beginning point of learning and understanding, seen on a relative scale of development, is always the same, namely undifferentiated and indistinct generalities, which can no more reasonably be judged as moral evils than childhood may be judged immoral compared to adulthood.

We are incomplete beings by nature, which means developmental beings. The areas in which we require intellectual development are theoretically infinite, whereas time and experience are almost infinitely limited. It follows that “stereotype” is the standard level of understanding we are likely to achieve with regard to most of our awareness; much as, to borrow an image from John Locke, we do not assign a particular name to most of the objects that reach our perception, but only general names, for the simple reason that we could never hope to differentiate, let alone to remember, each tree we saw in a forest, or each grain of sand on a beach, so as to make individual names for them useful or intellectually meaningful.

A final note: Within the above outline lies the simplest answer to those true progressives, in the ivory tower or in the student pub, who seek to reduce the world of our grandfathers, and indeed our grandfathers themselves, to the pseudo-theoretical categories of systemic racism or “hate.” Furthermore, lest anyone imagine that these progressives stand for the developed level of distinction and individuation described above, I reply that it would be more accurate, based on all available evidence and their avowed moral and metaphysical rejection of the genuine individual as such, to say that they themselves are aggressively and systematically pursuing an artificially imposed, i.e., non-innocent, regression to the cognitive state of over-generalization and “stereotyped” classification that I have described in its innocent, i.e., natural, manifestation in the preceding.

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