‘The gilets jaunes are rioting again on the streets of Paris – typical French!’
‘Her husband gave her a saucepan for Valentine’s Day – typical man!
‘She has that short, cropped hair – typical lesbian!’
Caricatures lead to prejudice or is it the other way round? We all-too-easily slip into these kinds of caricature and this human tendency has been amply on display again this week.
There is the young British woman who went to Syria to become a ‘Jihadi bride’ and now wants to return to have her third child in the UK. Her other two children and her husband died in Syria. If media discussions are anything to go by, members of the British public are torn between humanitarian concern for the young widow and her unborn child and fear that she fits the profile of a ‘sleeping’ terrorist, a constant threat to UK citizens.
The Labour Party have again this week been facing the charge of anti-semitism in their ranks. The regular accusation is that some born-again socialists see Jews as money-grubbing capitalists who manipulate the money markets and the banks in their own interest. They are seen as a fifth column in British society. They are suspected of having dual allegiances.
The boyish-looking England cricket captain, Joe Root, was taunted on the field of play this week in an international match, ‘accused’ of being gay. To his credit he replied that ‘gay’ should not be used as an insult. His ‘accuser’ has now been banned for several matches.
Caricatures are tempting because they may at times capture a noticeable trait. They are still more tempting when they give one the chance to get a cheap laugh or snigger. It’s tempting also to lapse into caricature in places where we know our prejudices are shared.
At the risk of being politically incorrect, let me confess such a yielding to temptation on my own part. A good many years ago I was standing about 200 yards across the green from the superb west front of Exeter Cathedral in Devon. A man sporting a stars and stripes tee-shirt came up to me and asked for directions to the cathedral. I’d like to think I replied politely. But without missing a beat, I silently seized on the label ‘ugly American’. My slightly cool response may well have encouraged him with his own caricature of a snobbish Englishman.
We don’t want to take the wit out of life. And caricatures can help to identify weaknesses in ourselves and others. Cartoonists and satirists are currently having a field day in the Brexit debate depicting Theresa May as a stern and stubborn headmistress. Whether you are a leaver or a remainer, you have to admit there’s some truth in that.
But our caricatures and stereotypes can be ‘cheap shots’ - simply a display of lazy thinking. By satisfying ourselves with one-dimensional pictures we can avoid the complexity of life and the complexity of other people’s personalities. We can easily and unthinkingly contribute to a binary discourse where I am ‘normal’ and they are not – which merges very quickly into, “I am right and ‘they’ are wrong.”
Joe Root could have laughed off the anti-gay comment. He did not and he has not only generated a lively debate but also received the thanks of many gay people in various sports. Hopefully the ‘gay’ caricature is crumbling. There are others that need to go too.