The Dangers Of Stereotyping

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By Dan Agbese

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At our meeting of the Northern Media Forum last week, a member told us he was worried about the news media stereotyping the Fulani as being responsible in all cases of banditry and kidnapping in the North-West geopolitical zone. He said the Fulani too are victims of these crimes but that no one wants to believe that.

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He raised an important point that I need to address here to underline the dangers of the easy resort to stereotyping in the news media and the damage it does to inter-ethnic and individual relationships. The routine reportage of kidnapping and banditry in the north-western geopolitical zone names the Fulani as the untouchable perpetrators of these crimes. It is not difficult to see that it has unfortunate consequences for the Fulani as citizens and in their relationship with other ethnic groups in the country.

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Sad to say, stereotyping is an old human problem. We stereotype those who are different from us. It is an affliction in all societies where men and women freely pass judgments on the attitude and the behaviour of their fellow human beings. The news media take delight in inventing stereotyping as a means of painting verbal pictures that lend some credence to particular cases of reportage. Stereotyping is a negative portrayal of racial, ethnic, religious, other groups and individuals. We use stereotyping to pin labels on those who are different from us or who are doing things that we do not approve of. The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary describes it as “beliefs or judgments about people based on fixed ideas about them which are often not true.”

Stereotyping is dangerous in all human relations – intra- and inter. It creates a gulf between groups and individuals and forces the stereotyper to see the stereotyped only through the dark prism of his nurtured prejudice. A mild form of it is labeling by which individuals are given additional means of identification. But labels are mostly positive, e.g. no one who is labeled a radical objects to the label because it portrays him as essentially and positively different from another man labeled a conservative.

On the other hand, there is nothing funny about ethnic stereotyping. In indulging in ethnic or racial stereotyping, we force other people to become victims of our prejudices built on our lack or poor understanding of them. Generations of editors have sought to free the news media from the easy resort to stereotyping with very little success. Richard Harwood, as the ombudsman for the Washington Post, was once so worried about this that he advised the editors and the reporters of the venerable American newspaper to handle stereotyping with care because “the habit of thinking in terms of stereotypes, of equating the labels we put on people with the people themselves, is a bad business. To be a ‘Jew in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s was to be a criminal. The women and children killed at Mylai were not ‘people,” Lt William Caley said, they were ‘the enemies.’ A policeman, the Black Panther newspaper tiresomely reminds us, is not a ‘person’ but a pig. If we decide that the only ‘newsworthy’ facts about black people are facts about crime, public welfare and revolutionary rhetoric, we create a stereotype and deny the diversity of 20 million people.”

In stereotyping the Fulani as the main perpetrators of the fore mentioned crimes and security challenges in the country, we deny them our understanding and sympathy and refuse to accept that possibility that some of them too are victims of these criminal elements among them. We now know that in some parts of Katsina State, the Fulani cannot openly graze their cattle or safely go to the local markets. They face attacks and the rustling of their cattle. Some of them are in the same boat with the rest of us. Still, as an ethnic group, they are uniformly blamed in all cases of killings, kidnapping, banditry and attacks on farmers and travelers in parts of the country.

Stereotyping is actually weaponized when a nation finds itself going through rough economic, social and political difficulties such as we face in our country right now. It searches for some scapegoats, someone or a group of people that must carry the watering can for a variety of reasons. Stereotyping makes it easy for us to identify such scapegoats.

In the early period of the darkening insecurity situation in the country, Fulani herdsmen were identified as the killer group in attacks on farmers and communities in the North-Central geopolitical zone. Thus, Samuel Ortom, governor of Benue State, finds it easy to blame Fulani herdsmen in all cases of killings in the state. He has successfully parlayed this into a personal political fortune.

This column is not intended to exonerate the Fulani in all the criminal cases for which they are rightly or wrong blamed. That is beyond me. But it seems to me that in focusing solely on the Fulani, we close our minds to the possibility of the involvement of other ethnic groups in the aforesaid crimes in the country. Criminality is easily franchised. Stereotyping closes that door – and we are none the wiser for it. As the Forum member pointed out, members of Boko Haram are mostly Kanuri but they do not suffer the same public prejudice and stereotyping as the Fulani. He wondered why; so do I.

There is something somehow similar between hate speech and stereotyping. Both are products of personal and group jaundice and the human tendency to separate us from them. Stereotyping precedes hate speech. Both are intended to achieve the same objective of legitimising hate and create a gulf between us and them.

  • Don’t perpetuate stereotypes
  • Labels and stereotypes create false images of people
  • Labels and stereotypes interfere with the professional objectivity of the reporter
  • Don’t stereotype individuals and groups of people. The stereotypical label you pin on them often determines how you report them and how the rest of the society reacts to them.
  • Labeling and stereotyping don’t necessarily help your readers nor do they convey your information better in any shape or form.

We cannot get rid of labels and stereotypes but we need not make them articles of faith in discharging our professional obligation to correctly inform and educate our readers and listeners.

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