Sunday, July 15, 2018

Moving Beyond the Stereotypes

When I was in high school, we studied some of Shakespeare's plays. The one that had the greatest impact on me (and not in a good way) was "The Merchant of Venice." Some of you may remember it. The central character, and villain, is the moneylender, Shylock the Jew.  And while there are a couple of verses where Shakespeare does try to humanize him, the vast majority of the play depicts him as exactly what people in Shakespeare's day thought all Jews were-- greedy, dishonest, obsessed with petty rules, and incapable of compassion. Given that England had long ago banned the Jews from living there unless they converted to Christianity, it's likely that Shakespeare and his audience had never met an actual Jew. But everyone certainly knew the myths about the Jews, and Shylock exemplified every single one.   

As much as I liked several of Shakespeare's other plays ("King Lear" was, and still is, my favorite), the blatantly anti-Jewish stereotypes in "The Merchant of Venice" really bothered me. But what upset me even more was that I was the only one who was bothered. My teacher and everyone else in the class were Christians, and they did not see a problem with the text at all. (Back then, many of those stereotypes were still commonly accepted in the popular culture.)  Thus, when I tried to explain my reaction to the depiction of Shylock, I'm not sure anyone understood why I was upset.

Yes, undoubtedly there have been greedy moneylenders in history, and I cannot deny that some may have been Jewish.  But many others were not: moneylenders have existed in every culture, and no one religion or ethnic group holds a monopoly on this occupation (or on being greedy). What bothered me in high school, and what still bothers me even now, is when someone has behaved in an offensive manner, certain people will immediately claim that ALL members of that group behave that way.  And when you try to defend your particular group, those people will believe the stereotype and say you are just the exception.    

It's easy to generalize about an entire group; it's harder to get to know them as individuals. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen enough:  surveys show that too many of us mainly hang around with people who look like us, believe like us, and even vote like us. No wonder myths and stereotypes persist.  I wish more of us could step back from our preconceived notions, stop misrepresenting each other's views, and make a genuine effort to understand how others see the world. That's probably why I remember that high school incident, and the feeling of not being understood, whenever I'm on social media and someone sends around a meme or a cherry-picked quote intended to show what [pick one] all immigrants, or all African-Americans, or all Muslims, or all Jews are really like.

I see similar generalizations in our politics too: I cannot tell you how many Democrats are firmly convinced that ALL Trump supporters are racists and bigots; and there are just as many Republicans who sincerely believe that ALL Democrats are judgmental hypocrites.  I often get Tweets accusing me of being a "typical liberal" (whatever that means), and I am sure my Republican friends get Tweets accusing them of being "typical conservatives."  And this is where we seem to be-- stuck in our stereotypes, unable (or unwilling) to move beyond them.  I used to be a deejay (and as a professor, I still make my living from talking), yet from what I've seen, I truly believe we could all benefit from listening more and talking less.

Fortunately, I know some people who do listen, who are both inclusive and tolerant.  But I know even more who are quick to dismiss (or mock) anyone whose reaction is different from theirs.  Social media has definitely made it easier to do that, and some of the political rhetoric we hear isn't helping. But if we're living in a culture of stereotype and blame, why be satisfied with it? Shouldn't we want things to change? I may seem naive to suggest this, but I believe we can (and should) improve how we communicate.  It starts with being willing to listen rather than argue.  Given our different backgrounds, I don't expect us to agree on everything; but at least we can try to respect each other, can't we?  So, I invite you to reach out to someone who can offer you an entirely different perspective. It may not be what you're accustomed to, but you may find yourself learning something new.  And if more of us take the time to do that, perhaps society will become a little less polarized than it currently is.       

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