Cutting Through Stereotypes

Posted: Mar 29, 2007 12:01 AM
Cutting Through Stereotypes

Stereotypes are tempting shortcuts, framing individuals and groups with identifying characteristics that may or may not be accurate. Stereotypes can quickly become the basis for either demeaning prejudice or genuine admiration, and usually tell us more about the stereotyper than the stereotypee. Good or bad, they often work, like the cartoonist's device for exaggeration to make a point. Stereotypes particularly thrive in religion and politics.

Candidates for high office -- particularly candidates for president -- would never admit they employ stereotypes to make their cases, but they often do, even when running against type. Hillary Clinton tries to escape from her vote for the Iraq war, but she's still the toughest of the Democratic candidates, defending her vote even though she does it badly. She's looking ahead to the general election, when she will have to appeal to voters who may be suspicious of a woman as commander in chief in a time of war.

Barack Obama has another kind of problem. He no longer has to run against the cruel Amos 'n' Andy stereotypes of clownish racial inferiority. He has to run against the stereotypes of black leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who have manipulated the plantation metaphor by emphasizing black victimhood. Obama is trying to plant himself in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr., who stressed the content of character rather than the color of skin. He talks about black as well as white responsibility, as "the post-racial politician" who doesn't play the race card. He's betting that this approach will resonate with both white and black voters.

Republican candidates have different problems with stereotypes. John McCain, who capitalized on his reputation as the brave warrior who stood up to his brutal Vietnamese captors, refusing early release as a prisoner of war to stay with his friends at the infamous Hanoi Hilton, suffers from prolonged shelf life. He looks a little over the hill, stereotyped as a veteran of the wrong war. Republicans may prefer the younger Rudy Giuliani, who looks more vigorous as the leader to take the fight against a new enemy. The stereotype of hero changes with the public mood. After Harry Truman, voters wanted a genial general, not the stern commander in chief who presided over the end of a world war and the beginning of a new cold one.

Religious stereotypes have radically changed, too. John F. Kennedy put to rest the notion that a Catholic couldn't be elected president. In his famous speech to the Baptist pastors of Houston in 1960, he told how he "believed in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish." But who would have anticipated that a Mormon would revive issues of religious tolerance? But that's the elephant in Mitt Romney's room. No matter how many times his wife reminds us that he's the only one major candidate who has had only one wife, the popular perception of Mormons is randy men with a lot of wives. The television drama "Big Love," about a polygamist trying to swim in the Mormon mainstream of Utah, didn't put those early fears to rest.

There's a strong argument that Romney's faith would not ultimately be a mortal wound, even among the Baptists, Methodists and Pentecostals in the South, but appeals to the stereotypes can still be effective, tapping into ancient prejudices. You could watch a television rerun of an episode of "Frazier." The leading character wants to get rid of his unscrupulous and immoral agent. He hires a Mormon who is scrupulously ethical, but his moral "goodness" drives Frazier nuts. He finally takes back the old "immoral" agent. Is there a lesson for the political consultants here?

No doubt Mitt Romney is working on a Kennedy-like speech to dispel both ignorance about Mormon beliefs and to enhance his standing with social conservatives. Nearly everyone thought Joe Lieberman, an observant Jew, would hurt the Democratic ticket in 2000, but there's no evidence that he cost Al Gore the election, and he probably helped. It's difficult to see how "family values" influenced by Mormon faith could hurt him, any more than Joe Lieberman's similarly strong "family values" hurt the Democrats in 2000.

A stereotype is a word taken from the printer's vocabulary, referring to copies from a model or mold. The speed with which we receive our images today limits the power of stereotypes. New ones arrive with the soundbites that litter the news cycle, every hour on the hour, exposing misleading shortcuts. There's more opportunity to dissect fallacies in the shortcuts, to get to the essence of the candidate. The winner next year will likely be the candidate who most skillfully cuts through the stereotype.