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The Double-Edged Sword of Stereotypes

The recent terror attack in France, in which masked gunmen stormed into the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical newspaper and killed 12 people, including top journalists, cartoonists and two police officers, sent shock waves throughout the world. Vigils were held. World leaders and politicians across the political spectrum denounced the incident as a classic example of raw evil.

Journalists and pundits have aggressively weighed in with intense op-ed pieces and television commentary. Private citizens have kept the Internet and blogger sphere in overdrive with reams of passionate comments about the event. Such a blatant act of violence has galvanized millions of people across religions, continents, ethnic groups and in other ways. Numerous world leaders gathered in Paris to show solidarity with French President Francois Hollande and the French people.

The deaths of two perpetrators, Said and Cherif Kouachi, in a shootout with French police sent a sigh of temporary relief through the nation as well as most of the world. While no rational person can deny the fact that these mass murderers were two evil human beings and should be denounced for such sadistic acts, one problematic result that has emerged from this event is that a number of people have begin to revert to long-held stereotypes as they relate to Muslims. Violent, evil, callous and sinister are just a few of the hostile labels that have been hurled toward people of Islamic faith.

Most reasonable people are aware of the fact that the vast majority of Muslims, like individuals of all religions, are decent, peaceful and law-abiding human beings. Nonetheless, this has not stopped more than a few misguided, impassioned souls from engaging in retrograde stereotyping. Such misguided labeling is insulting to Muslims and those who practice Islam.

Stereotyping is the act of making judgments and assumptions about people without knowing them. Moreover, they are generalizations about a type of person or groups of people. While some stereotypes can be seen as relatively positive, more often not, the majority of them are negative and far too many are offensive. It is a direct opportunity for an individual to project his or her discomfort, dislikes and biases. It is often the worst form of patronizing behavior.

The fact is that all, some, few or none of those views may be true depending on individual(s) in question. Nonetheless, such perceptions have been deeply imbedded in the fabric and mindset of our culture. In each of my undergraduate courses, I discuss and have my students engage in discussions on racial, gender, cultural and regional stereotypes. For the most part, college students tend to list traditional long-held stereotypes. Every now and then they surprise me with new ones.

The undeniable fact is that all of us have been guilty of ascribing stereotypes to different groups of people at one time or another. You could not be over 30 years old, be an American citizen and not have internalized some degree of assumptions about others who are different or even similar to you on some level.

While old habits are hard to break and people do not change overnight, it is still better for all of us to make every earnest effort to dispel stereotyping others. No group of individuals should be targeted with baseless assumptions or pegged with myopic labels due to the discomfort, fear and ignorance based on the insecurities of others. After all, do we want the same sort of misguided perverse, sort of labeling being directed toward us? I think not.

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