Monday, January 31, 2011

My Three Words

I am fascinated, repulsed and intrigued by stereotypes. Part of what repulses me is that I see a use for them. I suppose I find that intriguing because I don’t consider myself to be completely un-learned, and I am fascinated by the fact that I have still perpetuated their use.

I used to employ the excuse that stereotypes were a type of contraction that permitted us to quickly get to the point; an abbreviation that allowed us to be on the same page which would then allow us to delve into the intellectual heart of a matter. I considered them to be an easy way to get ideas across - used to simplify communication and support the occasion quick comebacks/ lame retort.

Stereotypes may very well be a short cut.  However, I think we should be taking the long way.  Discovering what a person is without simplifying or eliminating personality should be what the heart of the matter is regardless of the subject at hand.

I myself have been easily typecast, and honestly, I fit into many of the pigeon holes I have been crammed into. Some of them fit me comfortably I am slightly chagrined to say. Pushy football dad, stage mom, conservative (for the liberals), liberal (for the conservatives). I am a self centered blogger, coupon clipper, price haggler, artistic genius with no spelling skills.  I am a mood swinger the like of which as been little seen,  and a westerner/capitalist (if being poor is capitalistic). I am the guy who can fix everything except plumbing and automotive.  I am middle aged and good with hair dye and a paint brush.

I discovered another type I appear to fit into this last week. It came from a former co-worker I saw at a church I was visiting. He mentioned that he didn’t think I was the churchy type. Of course I asked him what the churchy type was. He back peddled and made a joke and changed the subject. Smart move.

So does he consider the churchy type as one holier-than-though? Or is the churchy type for him a zealot. Bigoted? Conforming? For me, the quickest image I get for the churchy type is someone who goes to church for any other reason but for self betterment; for social statues, or for reputation. Expectation. Obligation. Someone who has the need to demonstrate to others his level of “spirituality”.

While that may be somewhat true for me, I am also a repentant soul in need of guidance and affirmation from the spirit that I find at church. Take that you stereotype's.

Here is something I did in the front of a recent class I lead that, I’m afraid, polished the crown we have placed on stereotypes.  I asked everyone in the class to come up with three words that best described themselves.  It was a simple ice breaker I have seen done in many classrooms situations. But the last time I used it I was halfway through the exercise when I was floored by what I was doing. I was asking them to come up with the stereotypes that we would then use as tools to categorize them, to place into little neat squares.  The exorcise in and of itself is not necessarily horrifying if we are planning to get to know someone for who they are and delve a bit. The problem is that most of us are content to make take note of the three words and then slide along, pretending like we are personally involved.

Do you know Calvin?
Yeah, he sings, paints and likes Swiss cheese.

It’s true that I sing and like Swiss cheese. I’d like to think that there is more to me than that. And while I am complaining that people don’t really know me and that they peg me into little holes that are limiting, I spend no time whatsoever getting to know anyone else past their three words. Stereotypes are handy for quickly categorizing. For those who need to effectively place people in a cubical and move on to something better, stereotypes work wonders. Efficient. Final. And now that I’ve put you in your proper place, I can move on to what is important to me.

But what if you are the one important to me? If I am going to initiate anything more that the equivalent of an emotional drive by, then I am going to have to let you out of the box I placed you in. Once I do that, however, you will never fit in that box again.

That makes life a bit messier for me. I will have to make more space for people, or be comfortable with the overlap.

The use of the stereotypes was once briefly useful. However, they no longer contain us or those we love like a garage built in the 1950’s just can’t handle today’s minivans or SUV’s. So,we re-think and remodel and bust out a wall for new ideas. Maybe the only real use for the old stereotypes is as a tool to understand our own propensity to judge foolishly. Like a sledge hammer or a crow bar,  it is effective at busting down a wall that confines us.

And when we have busted down a wall we smile at the thought of the quaint and ineffective stereotype.


  1. Thank you for the writings and for taking the time to say important things that few others say. I admire you.

  2. I'd almost want to add in that labels are a lot like sterotypes. I mean, that sounds obvious, right? But, when we're thinking, "Man, that guy is a jerk," I'm pretty sure, we're sterotyping, if not judging. You like Swiss cheese, but that doesn't define you. And the more you call people jerks, what you're really doing is trying to define those people by one little attribute that might be huge in your eyes. PS, this is actually me preaching to myself right now. I do this all the time, unfortunately, haha!

    Loved the post, Cal.

  3. Being that this is a gay Mormon post, what is the tie-in? The labeling of gays - fitting them into sterotypes? keeping ourselves tyed down with old ideas? I'm liking the essay all the more for what I am bringing to the table.

  4. So, are you saying that Gays tend to steriotype, or that gays are the ones who steriotype, or both. I, like you , like to believe that we are growing out of their usefulness.