Precepts to use in everyday life

1. Think for yourself, 2. Be yourself, 3. Speak up, 4. Feel free to agree and disagree, 5. Be honest with yourself and others, 6. Be open-minded, 7. Avoid being judgmental and 8. Question everything - even your own thinking.

TOK Essay Titles November 2018

Sunday, April 20, 2014

ToK Essay Presecribe Titles (November 2014): Question 4

“To gain an understanding of the world we need to make use of stereotypes.” With reference to two areas of knowledge, to what extent do you agree with this statement?

Click on the picture and read the corresponding post before reading what follows...

The anecdote about Gandhi is special on many levels, most especially in the way that it simultaneously exposes a negative cultural stereotype of the ‘stupid foreigner’, then subverts and replaces it with a celebration of a more positive stereotype of the ‘heroic Englishman’.  The irony is, of course, that Gandhi’s response to his Professor embodies the very sense of humour for which the English are renowned and turns it against his Professor to underline a reversal of roles.  Stereotypes are, in short, often about seeking patterns and we cannot help using them to function in the world as well as to understand it, because we are inherently pattern seeking creatures...
Click the picture to go to a TED Talk entitled, 'The Science of Stereotypes'
Stereotypes and emotion: Think of survival and the fear driven flight/fight responses of our early ancestors which continue to shape our behaviours today. There is a link with intuition, our capacity to make quick judgments without reason getting in the way.  The usual example is to imagine yourself in a savannah; you find yourself face to face with a hungry lion and your back to a tree.  You don’t reason out the pros and cons of the situation as this would take too long and you’d most likely end up as lunch; you feel fear and this triggers an intuitive ‘save yourself’ response which instantly drives you to climb the tree (hoping the lion doesn’t follow!) Now even, though we don’t often find ourselves in a savannah, the same thing happens in our urban jungles and emotion helps to judge situations based on our recognition of patterns of danger.  But the down side is that there’s no in built ‘deception detection’ kit – in other words, you could be wrong in your emotive judgments.
Stereotypes and perception: As the Gandhi example illustrates, stereotypes often distort the way we see world and people and are reinforced by a number of cognitive biases.  On the more positive side, they can help build knowledge because they help to identify who belongs to a particular group and who doesn’t as a way of demarcating needs, values and beliefs which are, after all, essential to our nature as social beings.
Stereotypes and reason: A cultural stereotype is a form of generalisation, not exactly like the inductive inferences we draw from observed data by means of the scientific method or the deductive inferences we make using mathematical logic, but driven by emotion as a means of justifying attitudes and actions.  On the one hand, these reasoned inferences are helpful in various ways; for example, clarifying the decision making process when dealing with people and situations, but they also shore up prejudices and intolerance (eg. religious attitudes towards gay marriage...). We often rationalise our attitudes to people without realising that we are prone to making various logical fallacies in our justifying arguments.
Stereotypes and language: Here, stereotypes help us to classify social groups making it easier to give us sense of social/cultural identity, but can lead to extremes of nationalistic pride (eg. White Supremacists in the West and Taliban suicide bombers in the Middle East...) and social/cultural divisions (eg. gender divisions between men and women...) But here’s something of a paradox: according to the etiquette of political correctness, it’s offensive to use the ‘n’ word when communicating to and about black people, but then it appears to be fine for black rap artists to use the word in song lyrics. Is this simply artistic licence or doesn’t political correctness apply to them? A basic example, but you can probably think of other such examples of hypocrisy in our behaviour.
In summary, stereotypes are part of our ‘mental map’; a set of patterns we create or which are culturally handed down to us and which we use to navigate our world of disparate ideas, data and human behaviour.  We make them in order to have some sense of control over our thoughts, other people and our environment, but sometimes they get in the way of clear thinking and peaceful interactions with those around us...

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