Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The S-word

All good little children are warned against using the S-word. In my lectures about cultural diversity and understanding, I like to discuss the other S-word*.


You would think as a purveyor of all things tolerance-oriented that I would eschew stereotypes. But I actually think they’re pretty useful devices to help us reflect on our own culture and the different cultures around us. And, if we’re being really honest, stereotypes are almost always born from some (at least small) grain of truth. But admitting that can be uncomfortable as it requires us to acknowledge the less-than-perfect in ourselves and in others.

I have lived with the stereotype of many things, some I have embraced and some I have rejected. But there’s a little bit of reality in many of the things used to stereotype. But we tend to focus mostly on the negative when talking about stereotypes.

In a lecture last week I was discussing stereotypes, and I always use Americans as the example for debate**. I stood at the board, pen at the ready, and asked the class (of all Norwegian students) to tell me about Americans. The list was about the same as what I usually hear.


Yeah, true enough.


Sure, sometimes.


I agree.


Likely the case.

“Lovers of peace!”

Okay…wait… huh?

Never in ten years of doing this exercise had that particular gem dropped from anyone’s lips. Most often it is along the lines of ‘war-mongering’ (I’ll spare your delicate eyes some of the other choice comments).

After I recovered from the shock of what I had just heard, I asked the student to tell me more. He explained that it seemed like the US really wanted to work with other countries for the betterment of the world, and it also seemed, in his opinion, that the US was trying to right some of the overly-aggressive (and warhead-led) charges of the past decade***.

Well, I’ll be.

This warms the cockles of my heart as, when teaching stereotypes, I always prepare myself for the negatives, and this gentlemen reminded me that the best thing about stereotypes is that they can change, and sometimes even for the better.
* No, not socialism, for all the Republicans out there. Just to clarify.
** As I have previously mentioned, it’s always safer to let others laugh at you in a potentially uncomfortable classroom situation than it is to dare to laugh at anyone else.

*** If you don’t agree with this fellow’s assessment, that’s fine. It’s not about consensus – it’s his opinion.