Stereotyping

People stereotype, and while there are many forms such stereotypes can take, I have focused on generic stereotypes. These are stereotypes that are expressed as unquantified generic generalizations, such as ‘Muslims are terrorists’, ‘Women are irrational’, and ‘Black people are lazy’.

My aim is to understand exactly what these sentences say and why they are so hard to properly challenge in conversation. By understanding this, I hope to find ways to better fight the spread of stereotypes.

One topic I have explored in writing is why the typical meaning of a generic stereotype is plausibly deniable.  Generic stereotypes typically have two-sided meaning: they convey both that most members of a kind possess a property and that they possess this property in virtue of their being of that kind. For example, the offensive stereotype ‘Women are irrational’ typically conveys both that most women are irrational and that this is due to their being women. Still, when a speaker utters this stereotype and is later challenged on it, they can sometimes plausibly deny wanting to convey this typical message. For example, the speaker could deny that they wanted to convey that most women are irrational, claiming they had some weaker statistic in mindIn my research, I have aimed to explained why generic stereotypes can be deniable in this way, while still conveying a two-sided message in most situations.

A second topic I have explored is the fact that many generic stereotypes have both a descriptive and a normative reading, such as ‘Women are submissive’ or ‘Men are tough.’ On some accounts, these sentences are ambiguous between two different readings. In my work, I instead argue that generic sentences have context-dependent meaning and that generic stereotypes have both a descriptive and a normative reading when they are contextually underspecified.

A third topic of interest is how best to confront a speaker who utters a generic stereotype such as ‘Muslims are terrorists’. Given that generic stereotypes can be interpreted in different ways depending on the context, it can be hard to know how to respond effectively. Often, when one provides a counterargument to a speaker who has uttered a generic stereotype, they simply dismiss the argument and claim that they actually meant something else. That is why I focus on determining the minimal content that a generic stereotype always conveys, in any context. Understanding what aspects of the meaning of a generic stereotype are not context-dependent can be used to craft an appropriate response that works in all contexts. For instance, regardless of the context, ‘Muslims are terrorists’ always entails that being Muslim has never made someone the opposite of a terrorist (i.e., a peaceful citizen). Whatever the context, this is part of the content conveyed by that stereotype. By focusing on this aspect of the stereotype’s meaning, it can be effectively challenged in any context. This avoids a scenario where the speaker can simply dismiss the counterargument, claiming their words were taken out of context.