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Saturday, April 12, 2008

Obama and the Lessons of Stereotyping in Politics (Updated)

Introduction: There is going to be a bit of irony in what I am about to write because in sales, my profession for ten plus years, stereotyping is not only welcome but frankly many times mandatory. In fact, in sales one could say that stereotyping is actually marketing. That said, Barack Obama is not in sales but in politics and he committed a cardinal sin and his sin is universal and hopefully all take lesson from his mistake. I also stand by my initial analysis that he was far too desperate to try and paint previous policies as leaving folks behind and thus got himself into trouble.

As the furor over Obama's statements insulting small town folks in Pennsylvania and beyond simmer and take on a life of their own, I have had a chance to think about them and I have come to the conclusion that Obama's biggest fault with regards to the comments is that he stereotyped. We all remember these unfortunate comments by Bill Bennett

do know that it's true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could—if that were your sole purpose—you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down, That would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down. So, these far-out, these far-reaching, extensive extrapolations are, I think, tricky.

Now, Bennett made the same critical error that Obama did, he stereotyped. The reality is that there is no typical small town person, just like there is no typical white person (another unfortunate Obama stereotype). Trying to paint millions of people with one braod brush and putting all of them into one box is dicey at best and it will explode in your face at worst. When someone stereotypes against a religion or race we call them bigots. Stereotyping is almost always wrong, and that is why these comments have blown up on Obama.

The problem for Obama is that he, like many politicians on both sides, stereotypes all the time. He gets away with it usually for many reasons. For the most part, his stereotypes are positives. Politicians often refer to Americans as hard working, patriotic, self reliant and many other positive qualities. Of course, these stereotypes are no less ridiculous than the ones he made about small town Americans. There are nearly half a BILLION Americans, and thus they aren't anything. Americans aren't monolothic. Many Americans are hard working and others aren't. When politicians stereotype in a positive manner people simply don't notice.

The other reason is that for the most part he stereotypes against demonized groups. Here is what he recently said about mortgage lenders...

The top mortgage lenders spend $185 million lobbying Congress, and we wonder whyWashington looked the other way when they were tricking families into buying homes they couldn't afford.

Now, even if this was many times true, and it wasn't, painting all mortgage lenders with this brush is patently ridiculous. Obama has made similar generalizations about CEO's and insurance companies among many groups that are easy to demonize. The reason that those statements weren't noticed is because they were targeting groups most people don't like. They were of course no less incendiary or wrong. Not all CEO's are money hungry vultures who's only goal in life is to maximize their own profits while making everyone else poor. Not all insurance companies actively try to make sure folks don't get the health care they need in order to line their own pockets. These stereotypes and generalizations are almost always made as part of his active part of his war of classes, and so were these latest comments. He got away with it often because he chose the right targets, and finally, he got caught going after the wrong ones. Still, had society viewed banks favorably, his comments against banks would have blown up just as much. The irony is that his attackers stereotype no less by portraying all San Franciscans as elitist, and they get away with it because most folks hate San Franciscans.

The problem is that his statement isn't merely without merit, but frankly one that can't be judged. It isn't as though Obama is responding to a poll that came to his conclusions because folks in small towns would likely slam the phone in the pollsters face if they were asked such a question. (yes I realize I too am stereotyping but this is a stereotype of human nature. When you are insulted you are likely to slam a phone) It can't even be measured. What is a small town, 5 thousand, ten thousand, one hundred thousand? His statements are not only insulting but patently ridiculous on their face. Not all small towns are poor. Not all poor people are bitter. Not all bitter people cling to religion and guns. Not all people that are religious do it because they are poor. The statement has absolutely no frame of reference. Are there folks in small towns that fit his little box...likely. There are hundreds of millions of folks in small towns and likely there are some that fit every small box. That is why stereotyping is so wrong. just because a portion of a group, small or large, fits the stereotype, doesn't mean the stereotype has any merit. We can make stereotypes about yuppies in big cities, Southerners, Northerners, and foreigners, and they would all be without any legitimate merit.

This brings me to some of his defenders. There are now many that claim that while the comments were ill adivsed that for the most part they are true. This is patently nonsensical. The comments were bigoted. Here is why. Let's pretend two politicians were asked these two questions and gave these two responses. How would the country react, and how fast would these pols be out of politics...

Question: Senator, lately polling has shown that you aren't doing as well with Jews as we expected do you know why this is?

Response: As you know, my policies are inclusive, and I am trying to take care of everyone including the downtrodden. The previous policies benefitted the few at the expense of the many. Jews, as we all know, are part of the class that has benefitted while the rest have been left behind, and thus they see me and my policies as the enemy.


Question: Senator, your party hasn't done well with African Americans, do you know why this is?

Response: As you know our party preaches smaller government and self reliance, and you know that African Americans are overwhelmingly lazy and thus they would much rather have a party that gives them government hand outs...

If you think these comments are way over the top and not comparable to Obama's, I can find you many racists that will say that they are entirely true. These comments, like Obama's, stereotype in the worst sort of a way.

The lesson that I hope everyone takes away from Obama's unfortunate comments is that stereotyping is almost always wrong and it will almost always get you in trouble. It is time we all stopped looking at people as types and found individuals.


Barack Obama tried to diffuse the situation however I don't believe he still understand what it is he did that is so wrong.

Lately there has been a little typical sort of political flare up because I said something that everybody knows is true, which is that there are a whole bunch of folks in small towns in Pennsylvania, in towns right here in Indiana, in my hometown in Illinois who are bitter," Obama said Saturday morning at Ball State University. "They are angry. They feel like they have been left behind. They feel like nobody is paying attention to what they're going through."

With all due respect Senator, the comments aren't true. These comments can't even be measured. They are true in your mind only. You have a stereotypical view of what is typical of small town America, and that Senator, is the problem. You can't see people as individuals and rather you place them into a box and that is the problem.


Anonymous said...

As a citizen of Pennsylvania, I did not mind so much being called bitter. However, what he said after that was truly insulting. By saying that we "cling to guns and religion" or that we don't like "people that aren't like them" is offensive. He essentially called me a racist redneck. I am sorry- but I am no racist redneck. I don't think Obama understands what he said, nor does he think that he said anything wrong. Maybe the mask is finally coming off and hopefully the last 10 primaries can make up for it. I also think his wife Michelle is much like Barack, they are both out of touch, arrogant, cocky people who think they won the nomination long time ago- we'll see about that.

mike volpe said...

If you read Bill Kristol's column today, you will see his comments are reminiscent of Karl Marx.

I think different people will have different problems with the comments. There will be those that will be offended by being referred to as struggling because they aren't. Some will be offended for being referred to as bitter because they aren't. You are offended for being referred to as something of a red neck.

All of this goes to my original premise which is that his big mistake was stereotyping. Once he generalized a whole group, he painted everyone with the same brush. That is frankly what is so offensive. You may in fact be bitter and that is why you aren't offended, but by generalizing your overall feelings he gave you plenty to be offended about.

bacalove said...

In an Answer to a Question about small-town America Barack answered, although tired, in earnest and with thoughtfullness: "You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone...And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations." What Barack meant in Essence -- which is the Clear-Cold Truth, unlike Hillary's Bosnia Fabrication and Continuing Performances, is that in General, Small-town America, due to a loss of jobs producing frustration and bitterness and with time on their hands, similarly to the Negros in Slavery time, who turned to Religion & Music for an outlet, small-town Americans turn to Religion, Hunting and yes, some blame the current conditions on Immigrants when they should be turning their blame on Politicians who allow employers to higher immigrants for a much lower wage than Americans would go for. He never said religion or hunting (music) were bad, because people tun to them for an outlet when they have lost hope in their government and with extra time on their hands in a way to channel their frustration and bitterness. The Wording could have been better, however I am sure this was due to Barack being tired and on the campaign trail for over 15 months. What he could have said instead, which are synonyms for bitter are that People are Resentful, experiencing Pain, and Prolonged Discomfort, due to harsh and painful economic conditions. However, the fact that McCain, Clinton and others are trying to take a poor choice of words and to make nothing into something-- blowing it out of proportion -- and playing politics as usual, is despicable in an atttempt to get you to see things not as they are but as distortion. People in small-town America have experienced a loss of jobs in a greater degree and opportunity than Cities and suburban America, with very little to look forward to and time on their hands other than to go to church, hunt, and visit their local taverns, and for the young, many join the Military, and so many small town Americans have become bitter and disillusioned. Obama never stated that it was wrong that they turned to Religion and Guns due to time on their hands and/or a loss of hope, culture, plays, theaters, etc., they for an outlet turned to religion and guns.

In a larger picture, people in general all over America, are bitter over high gas prices, increased food prices, loss of jobs and hope, high education costs, increased mortgage costs and foreclosure, loss of jobs that leave the country and move to India and/or China, and as hard as it is to say, some people are bitter over immigration and the loss of jobs due to companies hiring immigrants for a much lower wage than Americans would go for -- in an America that does not resemble the one we used to know and believe in. We have even lost the respect and admiration of other countries around the world due to the demise of the America we love and believe in. As Barack points out, we should not blame the Immigrants but the policies that have caused this chaos.

America, we have to ask ourselves, which is more eggrecious, a politician telling us the hard truth, the things we may not want to hear but need to hear OR a politician telling us a Fantasy/Lie, like the Bosnia Sniper Fire fabrication and PERFORMANCE, things we did not need to hear because not Truth, and which is a betrayal of the public trust and a deeply flawed Character Issue. There was a time that politicians was the most Honest Game in town -- George Washington, Honest Abe, Thomas Jefferson these are just a few examples, but they were men of high ethics and moral character who would not dare to tell the public a bold face ... for their own personal gain, it just was not done. And to say that Obama is an elitist, is like coloring Sen. Kerry a deserter, which they tried and was somewhat successful at, and look where it got us, into a war that should never have been waged and a host of other woes that only True Change from the bottom-up can Transform. I hope the people will see through Clinton and McCain's politicking, Distorting and twisting his words and Message for their own political gain and rally to Obama's aide who in all honesty is trying to Change Washington from a Power Broker to Power People, because in the end it will be the people's voice and votes that matter. Barack Obama in his attempt to speak the clear-cold truth to America has produced a crisis effect, can we handle the truth, seeing things as they are -- the good and the bad, because that is the only way we can change things for the better in America to look at the hard facts and stop trying to sweep them under the rug or have politicians tell us that things are Great, when they are terribly wrong. They are not right and people are bitter, but we have a chance for Hope now; We have a Chance to Change, that hope -- that change is in the body of Barack Obama! Let no one fool you because if you do, you are saying you rather hear a lying politican than one who speaks Truth!

mike volpe said...

Well, I appreciate the Obama commercial, however it is obvious. There is absolutely nothing truthful about that statement because he made a statement that can't be measured. How do you measure a small town? 50 thousand, ten thousand, one hundred thousand...How do you measure struggling?

Furthermore, again, people in small towns are not monolithic. Not all are church going people and not all value the second amendment, and certainly those that do, not all, and likely not most, value them because they are bitter and dowtrodden. He didn't speak the truth but rather a stereotypical view of folks that he frankly likely doesn't really understand. People in small towns aren't struggling anymore today than they were 25 years ago. This is just nonsense.

Barack Obama simply doesn't recognize economic reality. The last 25 years have been of near sustained economic growth and everyone has shared. Small towns haven't shared as much as big towns, but that frankly is reality for any time period.

The real reason that small towns haven't shared as much has nothing to do with the government not caring about them. If there is no transportation: buses, trains, airports, etc. near you, then you aren't going to grow as much. Small towns simply don't have all of the transportation available that larger places do. It is hard to do business when it is difficult for business to reach you.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in one of those small Pennsylvania towns. To the extent anybody was bitter, it was over the fact that arrogant elitists who know only what their college professors told them believe they can run people's lives better than the people can.
Bacalove: So you found the One Who Does Not Lie and you are committed to Him. What bitterness do you have that causes you to cling to your new religion?

mike volpe said...

Dave, your comments are appreciated and insightful, but remember, it is no better for you to stereotype than for Obama. Speak for youself, not for small towns in general, because people are not monolithic.