Why do people embrace stereotypes?

One thing that has always interested me is how willingly people trade their individuality for a role or a type. The New Jerseyite happily puts on dark glasses, gets a tan, and puts oil in his hair. The ivy league graduate gets a scarf, pointy leather shoes, and cufflinks to go with his law degree. The frat boy gets a north face jacket to go with the family guy collection sitting in a puddle of beer congealing in his black jeep cherokee.

Of course there is the usual explanation, which is, it’s tough living without an identity, and our society has many ready made molds that one can slip into, but I think the story is a little deeper. Namely, because I don’t see all of these ways of life, though I tried my best to parody them above, as devoid of value. I think they all have immense value actually, but the problem is that to embrace one type of life is to foreclose another. It’s not that we all want identities, which are flimsy little constructions, but rather that we all really do want to live our lives according to some guiding compass.

The problem is that it’s scary to live in tension with values; to try to live all values at once is alienating and straining. The fighter pilot who likes interpretive dance, the frat boy who is in favor of animal rights, and the ivy league graduate who works as a police officer for a little while. All of these are rare people, and each one of these person in some sense realizes that no one value in their life is sovereign. The intellectual might realize that the world of ideas is partially frivolous and isolating, while the frat boy might realize that constant partying leaves one empty after a certain point. Of course, to make these choices is to leave oneself doubly isolated. First, other people from a certain group will look on you with suspicion. Other frat boys might say “where’s your family guy collection. Why is Peter Singer’s book about animal liberation next to your computer.” The ivy league graduate turned policy officer might find that his friends wonder why his house isn’t so big or why he has a gun instead of a squash racquet. The athletic professor might get stares for the whey protein that sits where his copy of “Sense and Reference” should be. But second, the person who tries to live all values is always in tension with himself, for he realizes that no one type of life is good enough. As soon as he is satisfied, he realizes what is missing.

Unfortunately, it’s much easier to pick one value and think that it’s superior, than give thought to the conflict among values. The academic thumbs his nose at grunts in Afghanistan because it’s easier than acknowledging that there is something to that life. To do that would be to acknowledge that one’s own life is not complete and that it’s missing something. Few can accept that fact.


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