Will the Real Individual
Please Stand Up?
Ascribed Status vs. Achieved Status
There is a very old saying, "You can't judge a book by its cover." An excellent piece of advice, but one rarely followed. We human beings are barraged with so much information - sights, sounds, scents - that we do not have time to analyze each one of them individually. It is much easier to simply assign a particular sensation, or impression, to a "type" - further investigation can wait! The idea of "type" or "class" extends to many things, even into our relations with our fellow human beings. Upper class. Lower class. Rich. Poor. Educated. Uneducated. People can be assigned to any number of different social classes. A person may even belong to more than one class at a time. Our impression of an individual's social class molds the way in which we interact with that man or woman.
It tells us whether that particular person is worthy of respect, or revulsion. It conditions the language we use, the clothes we wear, and sometimes even the food we eat. Our impressions of our fellow human beings can even determine our expectations of other individuals. From a small number of visual and audio clues, we can guess at whether an individual is successful or not... Or at least, we think we can. Of course, passing judgment on another human being is always a risky business, especially when one does it based upon first impressions. Nevertheless, the media makes such "educated guesses" all the time. We all do. But are the "best impressions" of the best and brightest journalists and newscasters truly any better than our own?
We shall see.
Newspapers and television stations are always bombarding us with images of crime and criminals. They like to show us photographs of the "alleged victim" dressed neatly in a suit and tie, or wearing the robes of an altar boy. The exact opposite is frequently done in regard to the "alleged perpetrator." Take a look at the April 20, 2005 New York Times, at an article entitled, "Judge to Accept Guilty Plea from Moussaoui." (AP, New York Times, 20 April 2005) the article states that the Judge's acceptance of Moussaoui's guilty plea will depend on her analysis of the defendant's mental state. We are helped out in our understanding (and presumably the judge's understanding as well) of Mr. Moussaoui's state of mind, by the following statement, "The case has been marked by delays, protracted arguments over access to al-Qaida members in U.S. custody and erratic, belligerent communications from Moussaoui himself.." (AP, New York Times, 20 April 2005) "Erratic and belligerent" - that doesn't give us a very favorable impression, does it? And if this negative phrase is not enough, we are helped in our evaluation of Mr. Moussaoui by a nice, little photograph that accompanies the article. In this picture, Mr. Moussaoui is wearing the orange jumpsuit of a prisoner. He is unsmiling, and to many he might even appear vaguely threatening. (Photograph AP 2001, New York Times, 20 April 2005). The reader should note that the photograph is not a current one, but one that was taken more than three years ago, in the fateful year 2001. If the New York Times has gone to so much trouble to dig up a three-year-old photograph, then they must be trying to tell us something. Prison clothes do not normally give a particularly savory impression
Meanwhile, the Washington Post (Graff, 20 April 2005) carries an article about Senator Jefford's announcement that he will not seek reelection: "Jeffords has suffered from a bad back and neck for years and has seemed confused by some of the questions in several recent news interviews." Sounds as if Mr. Jefford's would never have been elected to anything if the public had known about this! "Confused?" Senator Jeffords is clearly being presented as a man who is no longer fit to serve his fellow citizens. Normally, the status ascribed to a person in Mr. Jefford's position would be an image of power, and possibly too, of justice, faith, or erudition. If Mr. Jeffords ever was described in such terms, we can see to what an extent he has lost his former stature. [Don't let the door hit you on the way out....]
Much stronger than these examples of individual cases of a person's status or condition, are those in which a news organization stereotypes a whole group of people. This is frequently seen in the so-called "background information" that will be supplied in an article or newscast. In an article on the Prince of Wales' recent marriage to Camilla Parker Bowles, U.S. News and World Report described the couple as a, "Blood-sports-loving Prince Charming and his frumpy gray-haired consort." (Korda, p. 50, 18 April 2005) the reader's impression of Prince Charles is of a virile athlete, while his wife is anything but queenly (or princess-ly). Descriptions such as these play to the public's stock of standardized images. Princes should look a certain way, and so should their wives. Perhaps most fascinating of all in the way it illustrates current images of royalty as compared to those of the past is the following quotation from last December's issue of the New Republic, "A former employee is suing His Royal Highness's staff, alleging sex discrimination and unfair dismissal. A few centuries ago, that employee would no longer have a head. In the 21st century, she's a media star." (Sullivan, 23 November 2004) High and low have been reversed. The servant who, in former times, would have been utterly destroyed for having made such an accusation is now the one who holds the upper hand.
Stature also attaches to groups. "Hispanics in the U.S. 'live in two worlds,' says Alex Pallete of the Hispanic ad agency Vidal Partnership. But their Latin world is remarkably diverse..." (Lee-St. John, 28 March 2005) the writer of this article in Time Magazine did not feel it necessary to spell out the details of what it meant to live in a "Hispanic World." Instinctively the magazine's readers know what was meant. It is all the more surprising; therefore, that Hispanics could live in a "second" or "different" world from that which they are expected to inhabit. An Internet magazine called Hispanic Online bills itself on Google as "A Magazine for Hispanics Who Prefer to Read English. Evidently, your "typical" Hispanic prefers to read in some language other than English, most likely in Spanish. In addition, as one turns to the site's homepage (as accessed on 20 April 2005), one is greeted by a plethora of articles about immigration, border control, migratory farm workers, etc. Apparently these are the subjects that would be of interest to this non-Spanish-reading Hispanic population. Again, another upset to the status quo. The web site E! Online gives another account of supposed stereotyping of Hispanics. Without actually describing what he considered so offensive to Puerto Ricans, Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer attacked the final episode of Seinfeld. The finale took place around the Puerto Rican Day Parade. Ferrer's remarks - "[it] crossed the line between humor and bigotry...." Once more, the reader is supposed to have such a clear idea of the "Puerto Rican Stereotype" (Frankel, 8 May 1998) that no further commentary is necessary.
It is not only ethnic groups that can be lumped together in such an easily recognized fashion. Trade or socio-economic "classes" can often paint a very specific image in our minds. In a Chicago Tribune article concerning the opening of a brand new vocational school, Mayor Daley remarked that, "There is nothing wrong with vocational education" (Cholo, 20 April 2005) - a loaded statement if ever there was one! Naturally, the assumption is made that every one knows "what kind of kid" would attend a vocational high school. In contrast to this example of a municipality helping presumably "lower class" children, we are presented with a very different viewpoint in the Atlanta Constitution. In this case, the Board of Regents ordered the UGA Foundation to withdrawing from its participation in managing the Endowment Fund of the University of Georgia. "We've had ongoing issues and ongoing conflicts at the University of Georgia related to the cooperative association there with the UGA Foundation. It continues to be an ongoing issue." (Simmons, 20 April 2005) Ongoing issues? What kind of "ongoing issues" does one expect to be handled by a body like the State Board of Regents? The statement itself is laden with bureaucratic doubletalk, and does little to provide any real insight into the situation.
Finally, an inoffensive look at what could potentially have been a very provocative topic. The United States' Senate's web site contains a section called "Historical Minutes." These are short entries that chart the history of the Senate. The earlier minutes are basically serious evaluations of past political developments. The Civil Rights struggle is explored, for example. Yet after all these fairly heavy topics, the reader arrives at the very last minute…