My friend Handriga’s Aunt Jackie is one of those stereotypical sweet-tempered, rosy-cheeked older ladies that you usually associate with hand-knit shawls and recipes for the perfect gingersnap cookies. If you were to see her shopping for plants and fresh vegetables at the weekly farmer’s market, it is very likely that you would immediately, if affectionately, categorize her in your mind as the stereotypical grandmother. In fact, there is much of the paradigmatic grandma about her. For one, thing, she dotes on her three grandchildren. And she is indeed a fabulous baker, of the sorts of desserts that deserve to presented like edible jewels in the display cases of high end dessert shops. I don’t know if she has ever done much knitting or needlework, but she does some very passable landscape paintings of the scenery outside her beach-front cottage on Vancouver Island. And she tends a beautiful, English-style garden filled with delicate-smelling flowers and herbs.
On the other hand, what may surprise you about Aunt Jackie is the fact that she happens to have spent twenty-two years of her life as a helicopter pilot, plying the tricky airways above Europe’s North Sea oil fields. You also may not guess that she has an ongoing penchant for repairing vintage Vincent motorcycles, and once (more recently than she cares to admit) spent a week in a Mexican jail resulting from her involvement in an environmental protest.
Grandmother? Oil company contract pilot? Political shit disturber? How is it possible to reconcile such diversity, so many contradictions? The fact is, that her example may be a bit more extreme than most, but Jackie is really pretty typical of humanity in general. It makes most of us feel comfortable to place people in certain categories. It allows us to make judgements, and removes some of the uncertainty from our lives.
Of course, we make these assumptions every day in so many ways. We assume, for instance, that a burly-looking man in a sleeveless shirt is a truck driver or an auto mechanic. We expect that the frail-looking older gentleman with the buttoned-up cardigan will have a particular set of sociopolitical views. However, there are many times that these assumptions are completely off the mark. There are many times when that burly man just so happens to be a male psychiatric nurse, or the elderly gentleman turns out to be a gay activist and a maker of experimental films.
The thing about this sort of prejudice, or “prejudgment,” is that it is based on a numbers game. More often than not, we can make some guesses about people based on rudimentary observations of surface things such as appearance. However, these guesses are only ever a small part of the total picture of that person’s life. And furthermore, a good part of the time, they may be completely inaccurate. I mean, what if we make generalizations about people that are right, say, seventy-five per cent of the time? For instance, making the assumption that a man will be better able to repair a car than a woman, or that a woman will be more nurturing than a man. That still means that one in every four times, we are off base – a significant error rate when it comes to something as serious as labelling people.
Perhaps it would be better all around if we made an effort to stop making these sort of snap judgements, and devoted a bit more time and effort to getting to know other people a bit more. We might all find that our lives are a little richer for this effort.