The creation and use of stereotypes

Much of what many of us believe is based on a series of stereotypes. Some of them are just mental short cuts but others are created by politicians, activists of all political shades, the media and even people who segment markets.

Research indicates that people have stereotypical views of Muslims, the unemployed, various national or ethnic groups and various socio-economic groups within their own nation or even suburb. Facts do little to dislodge the stereotypes in people’s minds – for instance Australians and Americans consistently over-estimate the percentage of Muslims in their countries. It is common – prompted by conservative governments – to believe that the unemployed are pot smoking slackers who don’t want to work. Pointing out the massive disparity between job vacancies and the number of unemployed does nothing to shake the stereotype’s hold on people’s beliefs.

It has been thus throughout history. At its worst Jews, foreigners, indigenous populations have all suffered terribly as a result of beliefs about the ‘other’ perpetrated by Christians, invaders and nationalists. Chavez, Macron, Thatcher, Trump, Abbott and on and on have fashioned imagined histories to support their beliefs.

The blog recently came across two things which take two sides of the argument in the context of the relevance of history, the formation and resilience of stereotypes and the myths and legends associated with them.

The first was a piece by Henry Mance in the Weekend FT (29/30 July 2017) and the second a chapter in a collection of essays (Secret History and Historical Consciousness) by the historian Peter Burke.

Mance is a journalist who sought to read history at university but now has a rather jaundiced view of its contemporary relevance. “As most students eventually find out, history is informative, illustrative, entertaining; it is rarely instructive,” he said. Mance was writing about the Christopher Nolan film, Dunkirk, and suggests: “…history tends to be a muddle, which can teach us about human behaviour but rarely provides answers to our own political predicaments. Instead of championing or rejecting national myths, we would do better just to debate the facts of the present.” Well, up to a point Lord Copper, we might say because it is impossible to disentangle many current debates from historical myths or realities.

Peter Burke’s essay, The Black Legend of the Jesuits: an essay in the history of stereotypes, was originally published in a 2001 collection of essays honouring the historian John Bossy and is now reproduced in The Secret History volume. Burke also wrote a book, The Fabrication of Louis XIV, which is probably the best book yet written on comparisons and contrasts with image-making throughout history, the 17th century in particular and today.

The Black Legend chapter is also about image making – both positive and negative. Now for those not familiar with history, Jesuits were not always regarded as benignly as Pope Francis is – although it is paradoxical that it was religious and political progressives who did much to create the Black Legend of the Jesuits in the past and modern conservatives who demonise them today because of the turn by some Jesuits to liberation theology.

The term Black Legend was only coined in 1912 but encompasses the series of legends promulgated by monarchs, writers, Protestants and other Catholics around the Jesuits’ over centuries: secrecy, unbridled ambition, sexual immorality, assassinations, overthrow of rulers, plotting and responsibility for events as diverse as the Great Fire of London and the outbreak of the Thirty Years War. Needless to say there is some truth in some of the accusations as exemplified by Las Casas’ history of the Spanish in Peru.

What Burke points out though, is the similarity between more modern conspiracy theories and black legends whether about communists, the Mafia, the CIA or some combination of them. Burke then proceeds to discuss two standard approaches to the legends: the traditional or positivist (is it true – as in the case of the CIA and the Mafia – or false?); and the literary or structuralist (their internal structure).

He then proposes “a third approach to the Black Legend, viewing it as a system or a least a repertoire of stereotypes, each of which was formed at a particular moment for particular reasons, although many of them persisted much longer to be re-employed in new contexts”. These new contexts resemble ‘moral panics’ which have “the propensity to impute to a whole group attitudes and actions that are characteristic of only a few of their members.” This combines with what we know of the psychology of rumours in which rumours are remembered and then assimilated onto expectations and prejudices to create a ‘resilience’ of stereotypes.

Burke also draws on the work of Norman Cohn (which the blog discussed in its book The Millennium Edge) around the process of ‘displacement’ and ‘crystallisation’ of accusations which are frequently transferred from one group to another.

As Burke concludes (and as we see every day in Australia, Poland, the US and other places): “The resilience of stereotypes and the potential for their reactivation appears to be unending”