Complexity and not Stereotype should be the Approach

We, as humans, in our effort to understand the world or reality, try to categorise and simplify it in order that we could name it and hence assume to understand it. In doing so, we try to find similarities and differences; in other words, we define standards and try to fit reality into these categories or standards. This is how science approaches reality. However, when taken to extreme and rigid definitions it gets into trouble because at that level, the categories of understanding fail to integrate new information which, by being new, should lead to a better, more sophisticated understanding of the reality. But the rigidity of structure and trying to fit reality by force is nothing but viewing the world through stereotypes.

Those who view the world in this fashion are called fanatics. For them the world has only one definite dimension as understood and accepted by them. For example, there are many in the Western world who think that Islam is a ‘rigid’ faith, Indians cannot integrate, Blacks are criminal, Chinese don’t mix with others, etc. In the same way, many Indians entertain stereotypical views of Westerners, lower caste people, Mongoloid looking North East Indians, Adivasis, etc. Often, such stereotypical views of people and reality enter into government policies and day to day administrative practices. A particular way of viewing Indians, Africans, Chinese or Arabs was used by the colonial rulers to formulate policies, laws and administrative practices against the native people. But the practices and policies used against the White Europeans were different from those that were used against the native populations. Edward Said (1985), in his book Orientalism illustrates how the European colonial rulers, through an entire apparatus of knowledge creation and cultural deployment of it, employed a particular view of the native people as unworthy of equality which justified violence and racist colonial rule.

Today, the same approach of simplifying the complexity, categorising populations into groups and naming the groups in a particular language is employed to deal with immigrants (the most complex category of humans living in any country), and all those who do not fit neatly into older categories of understanding. By doing so the complexity is reduced to simpler categories; and by reducing them to simpler categories they are stereotyped. This process of reduction when used in administration and policy can cause great violence to individuals and groups. American and European “War against Terror” and the attitude towards Islam is one such category that is doing great harm to a billion population, most of whom are ordinary, normal and rational human beings just like everyone else of every other cultural group. Here is an example:


Precisely for the reason so that we do not do violence to others simply by employing stereotypical views of them, Clifford Geertz (1973) in his book The Interpretation of Cultures using French anthropologist Levi Strauss’ observations argues that “scientific explanation does not consist,….., in the reduction of the complex to the simple. Rather, it consists,….., in a substitution of a complexity more intelligible for one which is less.” And when it comes to the study of human beings or human societies, he argues that “explanation often consists of substituting complex pictures for simple ones while striving somehow to retain the persuasive clarity that went with the simple ones”. As for scientific advancement, according to Geertz, the approach “consists in a progressive complication of what once seemed a beautifully simple set of notions but now seems an unbearably simplistic one”.

Geertz, here, speaks of a social scientific methodology or for that matter approaching science and knowledge in general. His argument presupposes that even in the field of science people who claim to be intellectuals fall prey to the idea that simplifying reality into categories to make people understand it easily is a good approach. Such an approach is the hallmark of modern media which is compelled to produce content with very little time and space and hence, not bothering to pay attention to the complexity of the event in question. Is it not also the case with Church ministers, politicians and us all in general that we all hunker for simpler categories to understand and grasp reality? This, precisely, is how Muslims become ‘terrorists’, Germans become ‘Nazis’, Americans become ‘racists’, Blacks become ‘criminal’, Hindus are ‘snake charmers’, Arabs become ‘stupid’, immigrants become ‘scroungers’, and the disabled become ‘shirkers’. Such stereotypes rule our minds and construct our world view. And politicians harvest the laziness of our minds and win power, only to lead the world into further chaos and war.

If the colonial rulers used such categories against the native people, today’s political and media men and women operate on similar constraints or choices of cultural myopia. That’s why they can’t believe that someone like Yasira Jaan can tweet as above. So the approach required is not to reduce complexity to simpler categories, but to try to accept that reality, people, cultures, etc. are complex and trying to understanding them will not make them simple to understand but open up further complexity to their character. Hence, any stereotype is nothing but a lazy way of looking at the world. This laziness of mind about our fellow-beings, about all beings in general and even about the environment is a violence we do to each other.

About the Author:

Samuel Sequeira is a Postgraduate Researcher in the School of English, Communication and Philosophy at Cardiff University, Wales, United Kingdom

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