OPINION: Stop stereotyping your political opponents

Stereotypical labeling in politics harmful, unproductive



There are many issues in America when it comes to politics and how divisive they are. One of the most prominent issues that does not get discussed often is labeling.

JUSTIN WASHINGTON, Evergreen research editor

Something I avoid doing in public is commenting on politics, particularly because it has become such a polarized and divisive topic in American society. We have successfully managed to create a world where talking about the policies you believe in can destroy relationships and reputations. 

However, I do like to acknowledge when both sides of the political spectrum engage in the same type of hypocrisy. One of those examples is when either liberals or conservatives talk about their opponents, they use stereotypes.

“We use stereotypes because it allows us to categorize individuals easily without thinking too much,” Furkan Cakmak, instructor and doctoral candidate in political science, wrote in an email. “Our brains always try to make decisions using the least amount of resources.”

Generally, people evaluate new information based on existing perceptions formed by previous experiences, political science instructor Abbas Mammadov wrote in an email.

“If those perceptions form a relatively integrated set of images, then they are called a belief system in psychology,” Mammadov wrote. “It is a well-established fact that perceptions are not generally changed and almost never radically altered; we all strive for cognitive consistency.”

Stereotypes are a quick and easy way to make judgments about groups, but we have found they are harmful when put into use. Stereotypes might apply to a portion of the targeted population, but it is offensive to assume everyone is going to fit that profile. 

A political example of this is people are quick to assume any conservative or right-leaning individual is a Trump supporter. 

While this claim is true for a portion of the conservative population, but it is unfair to apply it to the entire group. I have seen many conservatives on the internet who dislike former President Donald Trump and would never support him as a candidate. 

Yet, just because of their beliefs, opponents are quick to brand them with a stereotypical term.

Society is trying to do away with stereotypes. Why is it that we embrace them when it involves political opponents?

“When it comes to thinking about partisans from [the] other party, we use the information we have to reach conclusions about them,” Cakmak wrote. “Since most of us do not find thinking about partisans from the other side very important, we are not motivated to learn more about them.”

Using stereotypes is a cognitive strategy to make decisions easier, he said.

This is true when put into practice. 

A liberal or left-leaning individual might be labeled as a terrorist just because of their beliefs, for example. It then becomes easy for everyone on the opposite side of the political spectrum to avoid that person because they do not want to interact with a terrorist.

The issue is that the individual in question probably does not support anything related to terrorism. However, we have normalized falsely labeling political opponents as a means to get people to agree with us.

Alongside this is a phenomenon called “mirror-imaging,” where if one person believes their own actions to be moral or just, the opponent’s actions are automatically immoral and unjust, wrote Mammadov.

“As a result, we may end up using inappropriate labels for people,” he wrote.

Morals come into play a lot during political discourse, and I think that is why we sometimes use stereotypical labels. If we convince a political group that their opponents diverge from morality by labeling them as a racist, Nazi, communist or terrorist, we essentially convince them that the opponent’s opinions are not worth anything.

“Racist” and “bigot” are common words on the news and social media used to shut down ideas and thoughts. 

There are not many people who want to associate with ideas, individuals or groups that are considered racist. This appears to be especially true when a large group of people all label the same thing similarly.

“This type of tribalism segments the already fractured American public even more and only leads to more harm and suffering if the course is not corrected,” Jared Watson, senior creative writing major, said. 

Watson said an obvious example of labeling is when Trump insulted anyone who stood in his path by mocking physical appearance or personal shortcomings, even if they were entirely made-up. Some of his supporters would blindly take those to heart.

“I have noticed that during any kind of political rally, the candidates can say whatever they want about their opponents, and the audience will cheer them on,” he said.

People blindly following certain rhetoric and not doing their research seems to be common in politics. For example, I have seen the stereotypical label of “pedophile” being given to liberals just because some advocate teaching children about genders and sexualities from a young age.

Not everyone who identifies as liberal believes children should be taught gender and sexuality from a young age. Even the ones that do might strongly be against any form of pedophilia. 

Simply disregarding their ideas or beliefs as “pedophilic” now encourages people on the conservative side to ignore liberals because of that one label.

Cakmak wrote that the rise of polarization in politics makes the expectation of assessing opponents fairly unrealistic. In the current political climate, people do not disagree with each other based on policies but rather because of what party someone belongs to.

“This type of polarization is also called ‘affective polarization,’” he wrote. “As polarization increases, beating the candidate from the other party becomes more important than solving policy problems we face today.”

One cause for this polarization is due to news media being partisan and fragmented. With a lot of choices for media, people find it easier to identify with a certain party by only choosing news sources that appeal to their political identity, he wrote.

Penny Scott, senior literary studies major, said labeling is harmful due to how the Republican party is vilified and the Democratic party is idealized. Many “red states” might have a lot of rural areas full of minorities who are left-leaning whose voices are left unheard of just because of where they live. 

Additionally, idealizing the Democratic party leaves them with little critique despite both sides of the political spectrum being equally corrupt and hypocritical, Scott said.

“Someone who identifies as a Democrat can be racist, sexist, homophobic … and hold a lot of the same generalized stereotypes as someone who is Republican,” she said.

Similarly, the Republican party has a lot of queer, female and ethnic individuals despite being commonly regarded as racist, sexist and homophobic.

Obviously, labeling is a harmful practice, but how do we go about solving it?

“The solution to all of this is simple. Simply be civilized and actually listen to people,” Watson said. “If both sides simply had the chance to explain themselves and understand where each other are coming from, problems will be resolved much quicker.”

However, he said that listening to others would lead to someone having to admit they are wrong. Admission of fault is not something that is common in today’s world. 

Despite that, it would be important for both parties to view each other as equals and set their egos aside.

Jack Meixell, junior material science and engineering major, said different political affiliations should converse more often because both parties have similar views when it comes to issues like worker’s rights and representation.

“To mitigate stereotyping and polarization, as voters, we need to improve our media literacy and learn how to detect and avoid misinformation which will help us soften the hostility,” Cakmak wrote. “However, this may not be enough by itself. Politicians should also step in to switch our focus from party identity to policy issues.”      

Mammadov wrote that people should be judged based on individual qualities, as inappropriate generalizations hurt both our lives and others’. Very few people are able to separate their emotions from the conversation and make the right judgments formed by respectful listening.

“However, it is not easy to expect this group of people to show a fair attitude,” he wrote. “Because they can easily be pressured by the socio-political group to which they belong.”

He wrote cohesive groups tend to “groupthink” to strive for unanimity. Those who think differently might hide their opinions because they do not want to lose status in the group they belong to.

This is also common in politics. Many groups fall into a group mentality that does not encourage individuality or contradictory opinions.

All of these are solid points to bring up, but like many have said, expecting fairness in our current political climate is difficult and potentially unrealistic. I believe there is hope, however. 

There might be a left and a right on the political spectrum, but there is also a center: people who diverge from tribalism and label themselves as free thinkers. 

While most of today’s politics are still based on partisanship, there may come a day when free thinkers can dominate the divisive political binary that rules the U.S. After all, it was our first president who told us not to conform to political parties in the first place.