(I go off on one a bit)
Perceptions are weird, in that people inevitably perceive each other in relation to a set of criteria they have for all people. For instance, a person wearing a suit in central London is likely to be seen as a banker or some kind of office worker, whereas in reality, they could easily be a homeless junkie who stole a suit and a bottle of Lynx. The problem with reaching judgements on people, therefore, is that we have no flexibility in these criteria; we don’t account for minute details and differences between people, meaning thousands of people are often lumped together under one big banner. This is problematic.
Unless you’re Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes, you won’t pick up on the smaller differences between individuals; obviously, inferring a person’s relationship status from a stain of coffee on their shirt is ridiculously improbable, but my earlier example shows how we fail to differentiate between people wearing suits: they work in offices, end of.
In reality, however, there is a multitude of jobs one can do within an office, that differ greatly in terms of difficulty, importance and pay, while wearing the broadly-similar uniform of a suit; the clothes I wore for my work experience were almost identical to those around me, so the only difference between the Head Broadcast Journalist for Radio 5 Live and a sixteen-year-old on work experience was that I was a bit shorter.
This can lead to all sorts of awkwardness in communicating with these people: do you pay someone dressed formally additional respect, because they look important, and treat the bloke in ripped jeans and a Fozzy shirt like dirt because they look untidy (and have no taste in music)? Because these associations have nothing to do with that person’s character: I’m sure businesspeople have days off to wear cheap clothes.
A reason for this is the stupid speed of our society: we want new toys and music now, and we want to be able to make judgements on people now, without any of that whole ‘getting to know people’ crap that takes months and can be mind-numbingly boring. Back in the day, it was only ignorant and self-important people who dismissed others as belonging to a particular social group based on appearance, but now even the most understanding, liberal person is likely to make a snap decision about someone based on the framing of their selfies.
These jumped-to conclusions is also based on an initially broad set of criteria: all office jobs are the same, so all office workers must be the same. This is understandable to an extent, as society has gotten broader as well as faster; once upon a time, everyone did the same mining job in a town, or the same factory job, or the same pencil-pushing secretarial job; now, jobs have become mind-bendingly specific, and have been for a long time – in the first season of The Simpsons back in 1989, Homer amusingly drew a division between the roles of ‘technical supervisor’ and ‘supervising technician’.
Combined, the breadth and pace of modern life leads to some disastrous bits of generalisation and basic discrimination: Mitt Romney’s spectacular attempt to win the 2012 Tony Romo “Shooting yourself in the foot” award, in which he infamously dismissed 47% of Americans as being perpetually loyal to Obama, was a political example of the need to generalise in this ever-growing society.
There are similar issues on a smaller scale: medical forms ask for your ethnicity and social background, to see if you are at risk from any vague diseases associated with these people; and this isn’t done from ignorance or bigotry, but because we’ve got so many people that it’s physically impossible to treat them all with the care and attention that we would have been able to do, say a hundred years ago. I also like our species’ sense of timing: as soon as we become developed enough to treat complex diseases like Cancer, we bugger it up by septupling our population between 1800 and 2012, so these resources are too thinly-spread to be of any use. Go us.
It’s gotten to the point that we have to conform to one of these groups – people will see us as one of x, y or z, so we might as well go for a good one. Look at job and University interviews: I bought a pair of shoes especially for the occasion, so my interviewers wouldn’t think I was a delinquent ragamuffin, as I’m sure a lot of you did.
This also extends to increasing social conformity: we’ll all be judged as belonging to a particular cultural group, even if it’s as vague as ‘rap fans’, a term which I wholeheartedly reject – I enjoy early 00s Canadian hip-hop, thank you very much. This creates an interesting positive feedback setup: we are shoved into neat boxes by society, boxes that we ourselves leap into to avoid being assigned the ‘wrong’ status. This provides evidence for the initial societal stereotyping, and the cycle continues.
You can see this all across culture: some people are so eager to avoid the negative stereotyping that surrounds Metalheads that they’ll find various sub-genres of metal and blow them up into full-scale cults: deathcore is fun, but I feel it’s not distinct enough to be its own sub-genre from metalcore.
And woe betide anyone who puts you in the wrong box: these last few days, The Simpsons have had to apologise for calling Judas Priest a ‘death metal’ band, which they are not; it’s gotten to the point that perhaps the most commercially successful TV series of the last two decades is having to publically apologise for confusing sub-genres, not out of spite or ignorance, but out of the growing practical difficulty there is to accurately divide up all of the various bits of human ‘culture’.
Weirdly, we might see a rebirth of the role of the individual in society; as cultural boxes become more and more specific to reflect the tastes of our perpetually-procreating species, how long will it be before each box consists of one person, who is into progressive melodic folk nightcore colt versions of My Little Pony songs? And how will these tastes and cultures be reacted to? Will we see a society in which the creators of content produce for an audience of one, where they can receive absurdly specific feedback of what that viewer wants? Will the lines between creators and consumers of content collapse altogether, as people realise that it’s easier to learn the means to produce content they love, rather than hope that those with the means produce something they like? The rise of YouTube in the last decade or so would suggest that these lines are, indeed, blurring, if not collapsing, as the number of pricks pointing cameras and iPhones at Italian restaurant food and ugly babies exponentially increases.
Perhaps this isn’t a bad thing though, as it means we can live as individuals, caring for and about ourselves exclusively, rather than as a collective, a lifestyle that will reflect the two certainties of human life: that we will die, and do it alone. This could lead to the destruction of society as egotism replaces the little altruism we have left, and the inevitable extinction of our species as we reason that masturbating gives as much pleasure as actual procreation, and involves none of that messy ‘emotional bonding’ stuff, and so cease to have children altogether?
Sadly, we’ll probably never know; our current culture must survive, in some form or another, for a few millennia before these changes happen, if they will, and we can barely last a Century without a total social upheaval: votes for women, emancipation of ethnic minorities, the invention of machinery, the elimination of feudalism, all are great steps, but they have not changed our society from thing a to thing b, but made it into an entirely new beast; thing 1, if you will.
I didn’t intend to get so broad when I started this, but I’d like to conclude by saying that perceptions probably won’t cause Armageddeon and social suicide, but that there has been a change from these judgements being the means the ignorant use to convince themselves of their superiority, to a necessity in a society that’s gotten so big for its boots that we can hardly fit a proverbial toe into the literal boot that our ancestors stumbled onto thirty thousand years ago.