Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

'Stereotypical Thinking' Leading to Discriminatory Practices and Abuse of Power

‘Street Fear’ should not be ascribed merely to the possibility of bombs exploding as in London July 7th 2005 but be linked as well to ‘stereotypical thinking’ leading to discriminatory practices and abuse of power as if fear justifies arbitrary rule and thereby the sabotage of social justice. The existence of ‘Street Fear’ has many facets since a sad reality making up cities around the globe due to bombs exploding and thereby killing innocent by-standers, even children as expressed by Brendan Kennelly in one of his Cromwell poems:


The black van exploded

Fifty yards from the hotel entrance.

Two men, one black-haired, the other red,

Had parked it there as though for a few moments

While they walked around the corner

Not noticing, it seemed, the children

In single file behind their perky leader,

And certainly not seeing the van

Explode into the children’s bodies.

Nails, nine inches long, lodged

In chest, ankle, thigh, buttock, shoulder, face.

The quickly gathered crowd was outraged and shocked.

Some children were whole, others bits and pieces.

These blasted cruxifixions are commonplace.

In the aftermaths to these bombings and especially after what happened in New York on 9/11 with a global war against terrorism sparking a new production of enemy pictures, another kind of fear dominates. It is linked to what a young Mexican woman expresses as a sad affair when the media follows certain trends instigated by government policies and starts giving “a stereotype to an entire race”. The latter must fear then discrimination especially if police raids can be sparked off by false intelligence reports but whose source may be just a neighbour having become suspicious as to what those Muslim members were doing next door.

What then can be done when collective perception is no longer distinctive enough to make out individuals while those in fear tend to blend into a distinctive otherness with another kind of conformity, so that everyone appears to look like everyone else: the men with beards and the women hidden behind their burkas. While individual immigrants can be, it is more difficult to integrate entire communities so that Turkish minority or Muslim communities within Germany or Holland create complete entities of their own. They may want to claim even their own law; politicians all over Europe and in the United States have sharpened the demand to limit immigration and to ensure strict observance of the law of the land.

All of a sudden it seems that the integration of many and diverse people into one community as based on the wish to become like everyone else a normal citizen has become a trap. While still wishing to be accepted like everyone else, fear of being treated like everyone else if only to be singled out and dealt with harshly because of belonging to that particular group has crept into the souls and minds of many people when passing daily through the streets.

Such fear pertains not only to members of the Muslim community once they come to be believe that they are singled out by the police in London but also to civilians in Baghdad. The latter live in fear of being mistaken as members of the insurgency when passing through the numerous street controls and then confronted by trigger happy militias and other pseudo officials of state power. That fear is reinforced by the occupying power, namely the US military, not knowing the real enemy. Fake reason and false excuses for a war of occupation lead to such confusion in Iraq.

In Europe such generalized versions about entire countries may end up influencing negotiations of entry into the European Union. Bulgaria and Rumania are experiencing that on the one hand, Turkey on the other. As if composed only of drug dealers or criminals, and engaged in women trafficking, there is growing scepticism about Bulgaria and Rumania joining. There prevailed already during the French referendum on the EU Constitutional Treaty such fear of European expansion. It was reduced then to the Polish plumber taking away the jobs of French workers. Interestingly enough a Polish PR company took up this stereotypical image of the Polish plumber and made in a poster campaign out of him a most attractive young man in order to lure women to visit Poland as part of a tourism drive. That it is a dangerous game with stereotypes needs not to be mentioned.

As to Turkey, the shooting by a Muslim believer of a judge who stood for a law forbidding the wearing of head scarves by girls when attending a securalized school system was taken as an all out attack against the modern Turkish state. The subsequent street demonstrations in support of the secular state sparked fears in Europe that Turkey will not meet all standards in time to ensure full entry.

More than the issue of Northern Cyprus ‘street fear’ in that sense suggests people have difficulties in gauging, let alone coming to terms with reality as presented in the streets of that particular country. As one visitor to Turkey put it, she was surprised when suddenly out of nowhere came a demonstration. Immediately she felt that the colourful life in the streets took on a different note. It was a demonstration of extreme nationalists in favour of the Military strong hold in Turkey.

The sudden transformation of streets into something else shows how much fear exists underneath the superficial surface of normality. When Athens held the Olympic Games in 2004 and it was announced that the then US Secretary of State Powell may come for the closing ceremony, some 1000 demonstrators took to the streets out of protest. Immediately the worldly and friendly atmosphere prevailing till then in Athens at every street corner vanished. Instead a strange silence as before a storm cleaned the streets of all international presence and this out of fear that violence may erupt.

Somewhere hidden power can reveal itself in sudden bursts of energy and transform streets into scenes which seem to stroke the fires of the worst fears that the propagated stereotypes do really exist and in turn provide evidence that the fears upholding these stereotypical mind-sets are justified.

Generally speaking, such ‘street fear’ to become a victim of stereotypical thinking can be linked to how people perceive the world as it has become. They see no longer any chances to develop anything further in near future. Fear blinds or makes the next step into the reality of the others more difficult, if not altogether impossible. Such fear precludes also that intercultural dialogue does not help to attain identity. The latter is not defined merely through culture or religion, but by design of existence. Sartre said while intellectuals do not know how to exist concretely in society while contemplating all sorts of models, a worker indicates already through own clothing what design he follows in order to exist in this world. Anyone can recognize a chimney sweeper as to how he earns his living. But due to a trend towards blending in with everyone, it is much more difficult to make out how this particular person exists i.e. by what means through what kind of work and position in society.

What makes things worse is that stereotypical thinking precludes a certain treatment, namely of high disregard and disdain. Hardly surprising is the fact that rarely thought through solutions are offered by all kinds of experts to problems of the youth and minority groups. They have only learned to develop such agendas meant to control the others but not to let them work with the cultural knowledge needed for living and working together with others.

Especially for the youth growing up not only in the streets but in certain districts, call them slums or urban derelict areas like those French suburbs which experienced in November 2005 another kind of eruption, they experience their own extreme frustration due to the prevailing stereotypical thinking amongst policemen, social workers, politicians etc. This is because the work and opportunities, if at all offered, do not value a multi cultural background leading to an acceptance of different viewpoints. More crucial is the fact that French society does not seem to welcome that ‘otherness’ and instead sabotages the working together by imposing artificially a hierarchy of values which is linked to one sided definition of competence and authority and to which the youth is expected to comply. But while all sorts of mechanisms are installed to uphold the power of society over these youths, it becomes apparent that their different background is more feared than respected. Resistance or the stepping out of the hierarchy can take place at any moment. This is mainly due that normal control functions of power fail if the person is of different cultural background and therefore does not respond in the same way to subtle messages, may they be threats of social exclusion or substantial meanings conveyed in indirect speeches like talking about the weather when meaning to ask if they can talk freely without fear of reprisals out of their own ranks. Rather than being integrated they are ousted for reasons of being resistant against abuse of power.

Once ousted and left to deal with reality on their own, stereotypical treatment begins in earnest. Pressures mount, police controls intensify and many who come into contact with these youths discard the fact that but a few years ago they were still the smiling children. There is no positive memory link making possible the resolvement of conflicts over generations. The youths of such milieus help draw these rigid cultural borders out of their own despair. In the end they go conform with “what you suppose to be: a drop out, a criminal."

The French writer Genet showed already what it means to submit to this conversion principle, for if a society keeps saying that you are a thief, in the end there is no other choice left but to become a thief. He was caught for stealing and put into one prison said to be the worst of its kind in France since the walls are so high that there is no way of looking into the future.

Hence it is of great importance that the youth is not driven into a tight corner and once there made to assume only a negative identity. Equally the media reports but also all narrations about reality should not fuel such stereotypical thinking. This was the purpose of the protest novel by Heinrich Boell against the German boulevard newspaper “Bild-Zeitung (BZ) when describing how a woman lost her honour and dignity just because the paper branded her as terrorist (in: ‘The lost honour of Katerina B.).

The impact upon the behaviour of others towards Boells’ main character reminds also of what Dostoevsky had described in scene in ‘The Idiot”. In that novel the ‘idiot’ goes on vacation in a Swiss mountain village. There he sees how a young woman caring for her ill mother who lives at the edge of the village is badly treated not only by the adults of the village but also and especially by the children. They shout at her as if a witch and do not even refrain from throwing if not stones then tomatoes at her. An entire prejudiced attitude seems to prevail against her and this for no other apparent reason but that she is different. She has beauty and the status of being still single. Only slowly can the Russian convince the children to take a different approach to her. Upon getting to know her personally and after they realize how kind she is, they can only wonder about what their parents say about her at home.

It is important to realize that many children and youths are embedded more often in families filled with prejudices and stereotypical thoughts about others, may that be the Jews, Romas, foreigners, or anyone else not to their liking. Fatamez Nawaz reported when making a Kids’ Guernica painting with children from White Russia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Germany in a German town and this first in a church, then in a Turkish mosque, some German parents did not allow their children to follow the painting action into the mosque. All these drawings of borders with no apparent reason have something in common: they seem to accelerate the conviction of those holding dear their stereotypical thinking that due to the unknown background of these strangers to know exactly why they are to be feared.

But if there exists this stereotypical thinking fuelled by fear, then efforts should be undertaken not to contribute to it oneself. Here something has to be said about determination of identity and what choices any individual might have in certain situations. All seems to depend on how overall trends in society influence the perception of the situation. Still it is one thing not to have an identity in the eyes of others, at least not such one that would blend in with everyone else, yet it is quite another matter to deny one’s own chances to making a difference and thereby gain in identity by being known for the position one takes.

Again, while it is true that individual freedom counts, there are, for example, in the United States more Blacks than Whites who end up in jail, and of these Blacks many of them find themselves to be on the death row. Here accepting or not one’s own fate, so to speak, has to be put into perspective. For even in jail there is a chance to make a difference and to act differently. There are those who go silent or blend in so well with the others that no one seems to notice that they exist, but then there are those others who write and reflect upon their own demeanour. ‘The letters from prison’ by Gramsci is an outstanding example.

Sometimes despite the fact of being in a confined place like prison can bring about a new creativity. This has been the case of those Palestinians in Israeli jail. They managed to have worked out a peace plan which President Abbas took up and made into a referendum meant to legitimize in future the official position of the Palestinian government towards Israel.

Not surprisingly a Bulgarian student living in one of those Socialist housing estates with her parents protested against those who claim they are unemployed because there is no work that they have no chances in life. She sees the entire history of her country made up of choices and decisions. There is no way that she would accept anything as being absolutely predetermined. Naturally it matters how history is shaped and then told. Through a good narration the mind can become creative and discover till now not seen possibilities to go a different direction than in the past.

What free choices any individual has in certain historical situations has always been a subject of great philosophical and political debate. Ronald Aronson in his book about the friendship between Camus and Sartre asks, for instance, why Camus fell silent in view of the approaching war in Algiers. By contrast, Sartre did not preclude that political actions in such situations could remain to be non violent ones. Interestingly enough Ronald Aronson develops the thesis that Camus fell silent because he did not want to tell his own people the truth of what everyone saw. A colonial system as corrupt as was the French one in Algiers left apparently no other choice but to anticipate its violent nature. It meant to get either out of harm’s way or else to fight it directly with own, that is violent means. Perhaps by believing and wishing that a third way of non violence could be found, Camus remained silent for want of a better way to express himself. If a system cannot be reformed, then this alternative of either getting out or else fight it seems to be the apparent choices. However, Habermas classified these ‘either-or’ alternatives as the wrong ones.

Still, especially in war situations meant to polarize, it is difficult to avoid taking sides and still to seek a path of non violence while ruthlessness and violence seems to spread all around one until there seems to be no sanctuary left to flee to. Most telling for such a situation is the description Ryszard Kapucinski gives of Ethiopia after the death of the absolute ruler. The borders between foe and friend were constantly redrawn and all seem to merge with new ones being drawn swifter than what it takes to dismantle the old ones. Still, the political thought has to be about how individual choices and collective decisions can be combined in order to create new development opportunities for all.

So the crucial question seems to be how to affect at both the individual and the collective level the outcome of one’s action? If artistic and cultural expressions are added to make possible civil conduct, then it becomes a matter of creating at first small differences but which matter in the long run. Even in jail individuals have proven that they can affect everyone provided they do not join the massive crowd of those who decided to resign nor submit to the authority of the strong ones wishing to control everyone else. Survival in jail depends upon many factors but it helps if the individual undertakes to write for the others letters so that they can communicate with their families and the outside world. For both parts of the world need those gestures of humanity.

Hatto Fischer


This article was first published in heritageradio under the category 'reflections'






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