Vindicating Stereotypes and Discrimination

The following essay appeared in the December 1998 issue of Pinc. It is also available in Czech.

No one treats a policeman like any other man. The response is elemental; we can not help but feel the force he represents. Our attitude is not simple fear of consequences, which rationally would usually lead to less cooperation rather than more. It is not just a reaction to formal legal power, since anyone could ask questions that lead to arrest and prosecution. Nor is it personal regard; police officers are not high in the class system, and respect for them individually is aside the point. Rather, it is a matter of a social stereotype fundamental to our kind of society. To deal with a policeman is to deal with government power and to view one as just another man would be radically to separate oneself from the government-dominated social order in which one lives.

The role of policemen shows the necessity and power of stereotype-based discrimination, that is, of understanding and dealing with men in accordance with their place in a social scheme. The abstract laws and regulations through which modern government operates must be able to act concretely. By making plain their demands and the ultima ratio for compliance policemen make it possible for them to do so. That function requires suppression of the officer’s individual and simply human qualities. His demeanor, his uniform, and the public expectations that constitute his stereotype therefore keep them firmly in the background. The supremacy of the policeman’s stereotype—what he is, simply as a police officer—over everything else about him is thus a necessary part of a system of government as pervasive, complex and artificial as our own. Whatever happens to other instances of stereotyping, this one will remain as long as anything like modern government exists.

Nor is the policeman the only one whose role requires such emphasis and clarity. Judges, doctors, and clergymen, those whose acts give concrete form to the abstractions of law, science, and religion, are also set apart by the observances that surround them. We are meant to feel differently about them. That is why they dress differently, and why they are entitled to special forms of address, as are professors, high officials, and other custodians of specially important functions. Such men are not to be treated like others. The point of all the formalities is to integrate human acts with symbolic functions. It is because of them that when a policeman arrests someone it is the exercise of the power of the state and not simply one man overpowering another by force.

The effort to set men apart as special and establish their stereotype as a reality that defines the situations in which they act takes many forms. The judge’s courtroom and bench supplement his robes. The manager’s suit, office, executive dining room and reserved parking place serve a similar function. So, at the opposite end of the scale, do the uniform and demeanor of the waiter. Even the most modern and rationalized of organizations use symbolic formalities to give position—stereotype—visible reality. Egalitarian aspirations that lead to attempts to get rid of such things always fail. The obtrusively democratic manners cultivated in many American organizations are negated by signals that make it clear who is who, and they fool no one.

We are social animals and stereotypes construct the social world. Without stereotypes to make men represent a larger system of things, human acts would have no public quality, and government would be reduced to mere personal domination. A policeman would simply be a man with a gun telling us what to do. There would be no effective division of responsibility, and society would become a mere aggregate, no more capable of intelligent collective action than a herd of cattle.

Stereotypes also have an irreplaceable moral role. They order human life in accordance with general conceptions; something like them is part of applying any system of thought and feeling to concrete affairs. Without such ordering principles, human life would be mindless sensation, impulse, and fantasy; human relations would be a battle of egos arbitrated by money, cunning, chance agreement and force. Stereotypes like “father,” “citizen,” “friend,” and the like lead us out of the chaotic war of all against all. They tell us what we are, how we should act and what we can expect of others. By establishing a network of accepted expectations and duties they make possible the self-government of society, and thus the personal responsibility, mutual respect, and moral aspiration that depend on it. By tying personal identity to social order they give us a home in the world and a reason to live by the rules. They make us comprehensible to each other and ourselves, and enable us to have characters with moral content. It is through them that we become fully human.

Stereotype and discrimination—treating a policeman or judge as if he were a being different from ourselves—are not “rational,” as many people now understand rationality, but they are necessary to human life. To reject them is to secede from society and attempt to be an angel or beast rather than a man. Nonetheless, they are said to be evil. We are told that they deny the humanity of those subject to them, that to apply a stereotype is to reduce a man to his social position, and thus, since it is assumed that self-interest is the purpose of participation in society, to make him solely a means to our ends. Further, since stereotypes can be at odds with individual characteristics—some policemen are criminal, some clergymen godless, some judges stupid, ignorant and on the take—acting on them is said to be irrational, a compound of laziness, ignorance and fear of dealing with the world as it is. From this perspective our tendency to stereotype is simply a vice that must be overcome, and the strength of that tendency makes rejection of stereotype one of the central moral struggles of life.

Such principles, of course, can not be taken literally. To eliminate “the stereotypes that divide us” would be either to eliminate stereotypes altogether or insist on a single stereotype for all. The former would end our ability to think, which depends on our ability to make firm categorical distinctions, while the latter would make pigeonholing worse by forcing everyone into the same slot. Insistence on the same classification for all denies other aspirations that seem legitimate and unavoidable, for example the desire for treatment in accordance with concrete individuality and the natural human tendency to deal differently with young and old, men and women, kin and strangers. Further, “human being” is itself a stereotype that is often at odds with what particular human beings are like. Some call for our “humanity” to lead to forgiveness, others expect “human nature” to resent affronts. Whichever view prevails, some classed simply as “human beings” will feel pushed in a direction at odds with their nature.

In any event, a single stereotype for all would make a distinction such as that between policeman and civilian into an external and abstract classification of persons felt to be indistinguishable. That would destroy the respect, fear, and readiness to cooperate police rely on to get their work done. Not just police work, but social arrangements of all kinds rely on distinctions that touch men more deeply than pure rationality. The proposal to eliminate multiple stereotypes is thus impracticable. Nonetheless, in the case of race, gender and the like it is taken with great seriousness. Such a dual standard needs explanation; it is not obvious why viewing women differently from men or blacks from whites is so much worse than viewing civilians differently from policemen. If stereotyping is bad because it sets some decisively apart from others and denies individual differences or equal treatment both seem equally bad.

The usual answer is that stereotypes are more objectionable—more “invidious”—when based on qualities about which one can do little or nothing, and which have extensive social consequences that are not plainly justifiable by reference to commonly accepted social functions. The argument is that being a policeman is voluntary and temporary. Unlike being black or female, one gets time off. Also, functional stereotypes such as “policeman” have a clear justification and definite limits because they have a direct and rational relation to particular social goals. In contrast, stereotypes based on race, sex and the like, because of their supposed irrationality, seem to have no clear limits, and so lend themselves to oppression. Further, things that enduringly characterize a man, and are pervasively important for reasons that are not strictly functional, are understood to constitute his identity. Since adverse treatment based on them can be seen as an attack on the man himself, they are thought to be improper grounds for discrimination.

Such answers are inadequate, because they grossly overestimate the differences between stereotypes. No stereotype is altogether voluntary, rational and situational, and none is altogether the contrary. Like society, which they articulate and make possible, and like human beings themselves, they are complex and very mixed in nature. Human life is not a simple matter of explicit goals and rational machinery for achieving them, and social stereotypes need not follow such a pattern to be legitimate. In fact, none does. Neither attitude toward police nor courtroom etiquette are mechanistic. Further, all stereotypes determine what a person is far more comprehensively than a narrowly functional analysis would justify. The advantages of being CEO of a major corporation or Nobel Prize-winning author are not limited to those necessary to the function. Nor is an off-duty or retired judge simply another man; he retains his title and is treated with special consideration. A civilian does not get time off from being a civilian, nor a policeman altogether from being a policeman—an off-duty cop is still a cop.

Nor does being black, female or the like determine one’s life comprehensively. Quite without regard to equal opportunity efforts, in modern society settings become constantly more numerous in which it does not much matter who you are, or in which other characteristics matter more than race or sex. Among family and friends race and sex matter, but other qualities have whatever weight those involved feel appropriate. And to the extent that large numbers of blacks or women do not like race and gender distinctions, both are numerous enough to step largely out of the system by choosing to deal with their own kind. When blacks deal with each other their character and conduct need not be misconstrued because they are black. With 33 million of them in the United States at large, with urban black communities that stretch on for miles, and with economic life increasingly cosmopolitan and independent of locality, blacks need very little white cooperation to arrange their lives to minimize racial issues if large numbers so wish. That ability limits the possible effects of stereotyping.

In any case, stereotypes based on things like sex and ethnicity have functions that can not be carried out otherwise. Since accepting them is necessary to important ends, they are as rational as other stereotypes. A tolerable way of life requires cultural ideals of conduct; such things differ, and the differences necessarily give rise to stereotypes. Destroy the stereotypes and the groups within which we carry on our lives would lose their coherence. If the French emphasize style and formal correctness more than most they will be aware of it, and so will others. Only by abolishing such particularities can the corresponding stereotypes be eliminated; to abolish the former, however, is to do away with the positive basis of group cohesion. Further, if varying ideals were abolished it is unlikely that a universal ideal of remotely equal value would replace them. The world would not be better if the French, Japanese, Jews and so on lost all distinctive interests and qualities, and were somehow kept from holding distinctive ideals in common.

Awareness of group differences, summed up in group stereotypes, is not a bad thing. Since groups do differ, stereotypes normally reduce misunderstanding and disappointed expectations, and thus inter-group friction. They provide ways for getting along when people differ, and ways for making sense of attitudes and conduct different from those to which we are used. “Cultural sensitivity” is simply stereotyping. Like reputation, stereotypes are a source of knowledge, and knowledge normally promotes well-being. A Chinese laundry, Jewish lawyer, or French cook might be good or bad, but experience leads people to associate each with competence, and the effect, like that of a franchised brand name, is on the whole beneficial to both consumers and suppliers. Such stereotypes can be rational even in the narrowest sense, just as it can be rational to treat other aspects of background as relevant to likely competence.

Stereotypes can also make difference the basis of cooperation. Gender roles provide an objective standard in personal relationships in which standards would otherwise be hard to come by. The convention that men are primarily responsible for bringing home the bacon and women for cooking it, when accepted, prevents arguments and generally pleases more than any alternative would. The innate inclinations of the sexes usually differ somewhat, and each needs to be able to rely on the other. By making possible an accepted division of responsibility that mostly corresponds to natural tendencies, gender roles promote the functional and stable families necessary for decent child-rearing; the predictable consequences of efforts to do away with them include weaker families and increased misery.

The view that it is wrong to discriminate on the basis of things that constitute identity makes no sense. Since man is a social animal, identity can not be irrelevant to social position. Who I am is inevitably connected with what I do and what others think of me, and the latter are necessarily intertwined with social stereotypes. An attempt to divorce identity and position disorders both. A ruling class whose members define themselves by reference to wealth, power, and bureaucratic position may see “affirmative action” and the like as simply an attack on irrational bigotry and its consequences, but the majority, to whom ethnicity, kinship, gender, religion and the like continue to be important, are necessarily injured by comprehensive programs aimed at destroying the significance of such basic aspects of what they are.

Regardless of anti-discrimination efforts, things like race and gender will always remain important to identity and remain factors in how people treat each other. We are, it seems, designed that way.[1] It is not human impulses as such that are dangerous, but the failure to integrate them with other aspects of life. The lesson of recent events in Eastern Europe is that it is hazardous to try to base a bureaucratic utopia on denial of fundamental impulses. The impulses relating to family, kinship, religion, private property, and so on endure, but the influences that civilize them can be degraded or destroyed. The purpose of current anti-discrimination efforts is to break all connection between practical affairs and the human feeling that things like sex and blood ties matter. Those efforts weaken the habits and institutions that tie such feelings to day-to-day practicalities and so moderate their effect. The predictable consequences have been sexual chaos and the fantasies of identity politics.

Further, discrimination will continue to be based on identity no matter how successful anti-discrimination initiatives become, because to the extent that traditional stereotypes weaken, identity will come to be based more and more on functional stereotypes like “policeman” or “CEO.” Stereotypes of one sort or another are an essential part of how we know ourselves and others. We are social beings, and social position makes the man; marks of rank matter to us because we feel they establish who we are. If we are not born to a position then our concern in life is to establish one. Career is more important for men today than in the Middle Ages not simply because they now like challenge and responsibility but because they want to “make something of themselves.” An effect of anti-discrimination measures is to increase the importance of wealth, career and the like to men’s sense of who they are, because they reduce that of other factors.

The consequences need not be liberating. Discrimination based on wealth, functional stereotypes, and so on can be as oppressive as any other. The notion that oppression has a special connection with distinctions like race and sex is false. Slavery has always been a functional distinction, and it has usually had no special connection with race. Nor does an element of choice remove whatever curse may lie on inequality. An extreme example is the murder of scores of millions by communists in this century because of class affiliation—in Marxist terms, relation to the productive process.[2] The fact that class affiliation was often a result of the victim’s voluntary action did not make the discrimination less deadly.

Functional stereotypes like “policeman” and “civilian” are never rational or voluntary in any very comprehensive sense. Those who think them intellectual rather than visceral should deal with the police more often. We do not make the world in which we find ourselves, nor, beyond a point, our position in it. Not all poor men or clerks are so because they want to be. The effect of stereotypes like “clerk” is not narrowly functional in a technological sense; nor is it chosen by clerks. The point of such stereotypes is less to create a rational social machine than to determine what someone is so we can deal with him accordingly. Both “clerk” and “darkie” tell us who a man is, and both can be oppressive. If I am a clerk, and a clerk is inferior, then I am inferior; a Harvard diploma, in contrast, is the present-day equivalent of a patent of nobility.

The radical distinction now drawn between kinds of categorization reflects a failure to understand human life. The notion that stereotypes can be purified and made technologically rational and non- oppressive is as much an illusion as the notion that they can be done away with. Both are at odds with how human life is constituted. If anything, the element of choice only makes functional stereotypes more painful, since it makes loser status a matter of personal deficiency and so deprives losers as a group—and most of us are inevitably losers—of cohesion, leadership, and self-respect.[3]

The emphasis on functional stereotypes at the expense of other more complex and expressive ones is destructive in other ways as well. We need to know who we are, and since we are social beings identity must somehow be tied to our place in society. Functional stereotypes, however, are too narrow and changeable to provide a satisfactory basis for identity. Being a clerk or even an assistant VP does not feed the soul in the way that being a father or member of a particular family, nation or religious community can. Insisting that functional stereotypes alone have public significance makes personal identity a shaky combination of position, wealth, self-assertion, and fantasy – something to be grabbed or fabricated and insisted on rather than enjoyed.

The current orientation of society toward comfort, security and material prosperity deprives functional stereotypes of intrinsic dignity, so that they confer distinction only through quantitative features such as wealth and power. Most men today end up, largely against their will, as low-level subordinates in large organizations established for no very elevated purpose. To make functional stereotypes the only ones that matter is thus to deprive the great majority of any basis for pride in what they are, while for the talented and energetic minority it is to make wealth and position an obsession. Such a situation depresses and demoralizes the majority and makes them defenseless against upper classes who deny their responsibilities while jockeying to advance their personal wealth and power. The natural consequences include envy, resentment, subservience, snobbishness, apathy, hedonism, perversity, and brutality.

Functional stereotypes as such—“scientist,” “lawyer,” and “manager”—are necessary and need not be destructive. What is destructive is the tendency to destroy all others for the sake of a conceptually pure system unsuited to human life. Life is complex and subtle, and can not be wholly captured by our explanations. The stereotypes that articulate it can be no simpler. In addition to those oriented toward immediate practical concerns, we need stereotypes that help us make sense of things like sex and kinship that are basic to our lives but impossible to reduce to efficiency and logic. We also need others—the good man, the hero, the saint—that accord with a comprehensive vision of how things should be. Without stereotypes to make concrete shared understandings of what is good, beautiful and true, a society loses its cohesion and ability to attract loyalty. Such needs can not be satisfied by a consciously contrived scheme; only traditional stereotypes that evolve and take form within the concrete social life they express and sustain can hope to be adequate. A tolerable way of life thus demands cultural traditionalism and particularism.

The real function of the supposed attack on stereotyping is not to liberate humanity but to suppress modes of organizing society that accept traditionalism and particularism in favor of a newer mode claimed to be more rational. The stereotypes attacked seriously are ones that articulate and support the modes to be suppressed. Since all complex human societies are hierarchical, of necessity the new mode, like the old, is based on stereotyping and discrimination. The real question is whether it is better suited to human life.

Whatever the pretense, men cannot be equal. The effect of proclaiming radical equality as a practical social rule is to increase hypocrisy and multiply opportunities for abuse and manipulation. The pretense makes it impossible to talk about life as it is, in particular about the relation between governors and governed. If it becomes impossible to discuss the identity and function of the ruling classes there can be no reason to expect them to act well. In a professedly egalitarian state those who rule will lie about their position, because they cannot admit what it is; they will abuse it, because without public recognition of who they are there can be no standards to hold them accountable; and they will view the people with contempt, because they have no way to think of them as legitimately different from themselves.

The character of the new order is clear from the nature of the attack on older arrangements. The targets are things that support family, religion, communal life, and other local and traditional modes of organization. Those things—gender stereotypes, ethnic loyalties, religious authority and so on—are said to be bigoted, ignorant and dangerous, and their eradication is now a primary social goal. All means of publicity and legal control are enlisted in the cause, especially those susceptible to central direction. The leaders of the attack are the groups and institutions that dominate information, publicity and law, the major media, educators, “experts,” government bureaucrats, courts, and the legal elite. Financial, business, and local elites, whose concerns are narrower and more concrete, have not led the attack although in general they have willingly cooperated with it.

It is a revolution from the top that by abolishing all other distinctions brings to the fore those of money and formal position. The suppression of particularism and imposition of universal standards make the new order homogeneous and radically centralized, dominated by mass communications, transnational bureaucracies and world markets, and thus by wealthy institutions, top bureaucrats, and the manipulative classes generally. Independent, intermediate, and local institutions are suppressed and the people are thus deprived of all real opportunity for self-government. The emphasis on things that are measurable and controllable – rather than rooted, specific qualities like sex and ethnicity – makes hierarchy stricter and clearer. The denial of transcendent morality – inevitable in a society proclaiming only efficiency and equality as the ultimate goals – widens the gap between top and bottom, since there can be little in common between those above who determine order, based on nothing higher than their own wills, and those below who submit to it. The ruling ideology requires these realities to be concealed; the rulers therefore stay invisible behind a screen of manufactured consent, claims of technocratic efficiency and universal human rights that justify transferring political decisions to small elites, and a spectacular ersatz public world, in which all participate vicariously, of glamour, celebrity, unbridled hedonism and enormous wealth.

To join the attack—to accept the egalitarian social morality that has become the only one thinkable in respectable public discourse—is to join in the destruction of the world in which men have always lived in favor of a new one with no place for the things that have made them human. The attack on stereotypes is of course not the only destructive force at large today; Nazism shows that a radically centralized and anti-traditional new order can also be radically anti-egalitarian. Although stereotype and discrimination are thus insufficient for a tolerable way of life, they are necessary. The attack on them must therefore be defeated.

What is to be done? The simple and obvious answer is frank acceptance of stereotypes and discrimination. Such things are often oppressive, just as government, private property, social standards, individual self-assertion, and many other things are often oppressive, but in one form or another they are necessary and inevitable. Treating women as different from men, taking ethnic kinship into account, and treating a judge with special consideration should all be acceptable as expressions of legitimate principles of social organization. Abuses can be dealt with piecemeal; to reject stereotype and discrimination in principle, however, is useless, since we will rely on them in any case. The attempt makes serious political thought impossible, and benefits only those with something to conceal.

Simple and obvious answers can be difficult to put into effect. By itself political action can not correct distorted understandings. The trends that have been so adverse to traditional distinctions have philosophical and historical roots that lie far deeper than current concerns.[4] The great strength of the egalitarian outlook is that current understandings of man and society make alternatives seem monstrous and inconceivable and resistance doomed. The work most needed at present is therefore in the realm of ideas.

In that realm the problems go deep. The most basic objection to stereotyping is that we want to be wholes and are insulted by being classified and so treated as something less. That response is all but inevitable when men think about all things technologically, since to be classified technologically is to be reduced to observable physical qualities and fitness for manipulation. Since no one wants that for himself, stereotyping is thought to be a weapon for gaining control over others rather than a necessity for understanding man and society. Unfortunately, the technological view is now considered uniquely rational, because it avoids commitments to non-scientific truths and to values other than actual human desires. The former commitment is thought superstitious, the latter oppressive and bigoted, and Occam’s Razor is believed to require the rejection of both. On the face of it, turning back the attack on stereotyping thus requires nothing less than a new understanding of rationality.

That seems out of reach. If men do not already agree on rationality, how can they discuss anything? On the other hand, the unavoidable pervasiveness of stereotyping shows that the understanding of rationality, now easiest to articulate, can not be put into effect and does not reflect how reasonable men think about things. What is needed is not an impossible and unthinkable new rationality, but a better understanding of reasonableness. A vindication of stereotype and discrimination requires clearing away an unusably narrow understanding of reason and replacing it with something that makes room for how men actually relate the world to their goals and thoughts, and in particular for the stereotypes that enable them to make sense of themselves and others. That may be difficult, since the technological understanding of things has been enormously successful and become deeply entrenched, but it is necessary to rational public discussion of common concerns and whatever the odds must be attempted.


[1] For a discussion of biological factors underlying ethnocentrism and group selection, see J. Philippe Rushton, Race, Evolution and Behavior: a Life History Perspective (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1995), Chapter 4.

[2] For details, see Bryan Caplan’s Museum of Communism at

[3] See Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb, The Hidden Injuries of Class (New York: Knopf, 1973). Dr. Sennett is prescient enough to see that basing dignity on functional effectiveness results in peculiarly extensive and hopeless forms of indignity. As a leftist, however, the only solution he can propose is to sever dignity from concrete qualities of any kind and make it a consequence of abstract humanity alone. It is unclear why he thinks that possible.

[4] For a discussion, see Jim Kalb, “PC and the Crisis of Liberalism,” in the February 1998 pinc,