2017 minus 58: Arche- or stereo-?

Posted: 4 November 2016 in 2017 minus

Types, I mean.

Archetypes or stereotypes.

I’m not entirely sure I’m comfortable enough with my own understanding of the differences between them, let alone sure enough that I can criticise others for using them incorrectly.

But I’ve been concerned about stereotyping today. Not only about whether it can ever be a good thing (it always struck me as ‘lazy thinking’) but whether you can get to a stage whereby a stereotype is a self-fulfilling prophesy.

In my life, I’ve been subject to all sorts of stereotypes. For a start, Monty Python has a lot to answer for as regards one of them. 

Remember the lumberjack sketch? What led into that sketch was another sketch about a bloke (Michael Palin) consulting a careers advisor (John Cleese). Palin was an accountant, which gave Cleese the chance to make the following comment:

Counsellor: Well, er, yes Mr Anchovy, but you see your report here says that you are an extremely dull person. You see, our experts describe you as an appallingly dull fellow, unimaginative, timid, lacking in initiative, spineless, easily dominated, no sense of humour, tedious company and irrepressibly drab and awful. And whereas in most professions these would be considerable drawbacks, in chartered accountancy they are a positive boon.

That single sketch, playing as it did upon an admittedly pre-existing public perception of accountancy as boring, informed and reinforced for generations how the profession has been viewed in the UK. 

(I mean, ok, I’ve not helped that myself. I usually tell people I was an entertainment accountant, but specify not an entertaining accountant, as there were precious few of them, and in fact Arnold Brown is probably it.)

But the fact remains that for all the “let’s blame accountants for anything that happens in an organisation we don’t like” is an easy and last path to take. Whether it’s car parking charges at NHS hospitals, or redundancies at a company, or shops shutting down, or even companies’ closures and insolvency, it’s rarely understood that the accountants for part of the process, but only part. 

It’s no exaggeration to say that there’s as little general understanding outside an organisation as to what accountants do, or what a finance department does, as there is, say, outside the comics industry’s as to what the demarcation lines are between a writer and a letterer. Every comics writer I know has been assumed – at one time or another – to be the person who puts the letters inside the balloons. 

Some of it comes down to sheer ignorance, some of it comes down to wilful ignorance, and still more comes down to how that profession is stereotyped by the media and by the public. 

(Hmm. Having written the above, I’m going to write another entry , later in this series, about what accountants actually do. I’ll try not to make it excessively boring, but it’ll be about accountants, so… you know.)

I mentioned comics. It’s not as ‘bad’ as it used to be, but there’s still a huge proportion of the British public particularly who thinks of comics as only for kids, and when they’re provided with evidence , their first reaction isn’t “huh, they’re not just for kids”, but “oh, you shouldn’t do that – kids will but it and see it.”

And yes, I’m stereotyping the ignorant British public.

And of course, I’m a writer. Thank heaven there are no stereotypes about writers, eh?
While there are plenty of worthy examples of archetypes in fiction, and indeed sometimes in non-fiction, stereotyping is almost always laziness. Lazy thinking, sometimes lazy writing. 

When it comes to politics, though, campaigns depend on it. Because, to an annoyingly successful degree, it works. 

And that may be the most irritating sterotype of all.

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to 1st January 2017. You can see other posts in the run by clicking here.

  1. “Disturbing” is a good word for the continuing state of politics in that regard. Sadly.

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