Generic stereotypes

Generic stereotypes are offensive sentences like ‘Muslims are terrorists’ and ‘Black people are violent.’ 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 indeterminate with respect to the type of generic relation that exists between a kind and a property. There are three types of generic relations (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 (generic) 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 indeterminacy 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 indeterminacy 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 indeterminate semantic meaning, uttering a generic stereotype by default implicates the existence of several generic relations. Someone who says that ‘Muslims are terrorists,’ for example, implicates that there is both a probabilistic and a causal relation between the kind Muslim and the property of being a terrorist. I argue that this default ‘conjunctive’ implicature is a crucial aspect of how we are able to communicate with generics, despite their indeterminate semantics. 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 avoid responsibility for the strongest interpretation of their utterance. Because it is an implicated message, someone who utters ‘Muslims are terrorist’ can always deny that they wanted to convey that there is both a probabilistic and a causal relation between this kind and property, merely committing themselves to the weaker (but still offensive) indeterminate semantic content of the sentence. This explains why generic stereotypes are especially pernicious and offensive.