Generic stereotypes

Generic stereotypes are objectionable sentences like ‘Muslims are terrorists’ and ‘Black people are lazy.’ Compared to explicitly quantified stereotypes such as ‘Most Muslims are terrorists,’ there appears to be something especially offensive about the generically formulated ones. The goal of this project is to explain why generic stereotypes are so offensive and to use this explanation as a guide in combatting them more efficiently.

In my work on generic stereotypes, I have argued that the truth-conditions of generics are unspecified with respect to the type of generic relation that exists between a kind and a property. There are three types of relations based on which a generic sentence can be true (i.e., probabilistic, causal, functional) and a generic sentence simply says that at least one of these exists between a kind and property, without specifying which one(s). The sentence ‘Muslims are terrorists,’ for instance, says that a (suitable) probabilistic, causal, or functional relation exists between the kind Muslim and the property of being a terrorist, but does not specify which one(s). This non-specificty explains why generically formulated stereotypes are so difficult to respond to in a conversation. When one responds to an utterance of a generic stereotype by arguing that one of the three relations does not exist, the original speaker can simply dismiss the objection and continue to uphold the truth of the stereotype based on a different available interpretation.

Their non-specificity explains why it is difficult to provide a successful rebuttal against a generic stereotype, but does not yet explain why they strike us as particularly offensive. In my work, I have further argued that despite their non-specific semantic concent, uttering a generic stereotype by default implicates the existence of several generic relations. Someone who says that ‘Muslims are terrorists,’ for example, by defaul implicates that there is both a probabilistic and a causal relation between the kind Muslim and the property of being a terrorist. Unfortunately, the same pragmatic mechanism that makes an innocuous generic like ‘Tigers are striped’ such an efficient way of communicating a strong message, also allows a speaker of a generic stereotype to convey a very strong and prejudiced message. Because this message is implicated, furthermore, someone who utters ‘Muslims are terrorist’ can always deny that they wanted to convey its strongest interpretation, merely committing themselves to a weaker (but still offensive) interpretation of their sentence. Their strong but deniable meaning, I have argued, explains why generically formulated stereotypes are especially pernicious and offensive.