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05 February 2007


Emma Bell

Berreby's review is a disgrace. Not only because it is tainted by unwarrented bile, intellectual dishonesty, and a lack of familiarity with the book being discussed, but because the Times chose to publish it in the first issue of the Book Review to appear during Black History Month.

james wagstaff

Reading David Berreby’s review of Ewen & Ewen’s Typecasting; I was surprised to learn that he partly could not appreciate the book because he believes that stereotypes can be good, an apparent fact he claims (erroneously) that the Ewens omit. Berreby points out that “deeply ingrained stereotypes can have positive effects;” just look at how well Asians do on math tests (he suggests)!

The Ewens did not set out to show us how historical examples of stereotype were helpful to those who were favored, no doubt they were; but to show us how this thinking has been, and still can be, harmful to those who are not favored. “Asians do well on math tests” is a stereotype; an ability is ascribed to one set of people, and denied another. That “blacks…are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind” (Thomas Jefferson, as quoted in Typecasting, p 21) also sets up this hierarchy.

That 'the whites' did better than 'blacks' on math tests in the 1800s was a widely accepted belief of the time; that it was demonstrably true is what is of concern to the authors. Rather than wasting pages instructing their readers how this stereotype was beneficial to whites; the authors examine how this came about, how such tests and their results were skewed, and how this could be used as 'evidence' for so-called scientific theories that were used to condone such enterprises as slavery. To fault a study because it does not mention how such thinking can be beneficial to the favored group is off the mark.

Berreby also insists the Ewens deliver the reader an injustice by not including the positive accomplishments of some of their subjects. We learn of Sir Francis Galton, inventor of composite portraiture, a pseudo-science that sought to identify criminal types by, among other signs, their similarity with the ‘lower races.’ Berreby objects: but Galton “devised the principle of correlation”! The Ewens are then faulted for bias... bias toward their subject maybe. They mentioned Galton as an illustration of how pseduo-science was used to justify racist principles (ie, their subject); but failed to say the constructive fallout of such inquiries. Perhaps this most easiest of criticisms, the crime of omission, should be reserved for a Galton biography.

Then finally, the Ewens cite recently departed Harvard University President Lawrence Summers as an example of how dangerous stereotypes are still linked to scientific explanation, even today. When commenting on the statistical differences in percentages of men and women on university faculties, Summers said that “issues of intrinsic aptitude” (Typecasting, p 357) may help to explain this gender inequality. Rather than insisting Summers was misquoted, Berreby explains that this debate of whether or not women are biologically ill-equipped to teach at the college level, “is an interesting one, with honest people on both sides of it.” That both sides of this debate are still considered by some to be even worth mentioning is what I found to be a major point of the book. Berreby’s review misses that point; and in so doing, actually proves it.


I agree that the review was slanted and frankly, if it was an issue for him, he should have mentioned it and then fairly reviewed the book for what it it. Ahhhh media....


"Every way of seeing is also a way of not seeing." Helen Merrell Lynd said that and it couldn't be any more evident after reading David Berreby's review of Typecasting.

In his article, Berreby enthusiastically states "one opens the book with hopes for insight into the historical roots of today's controversies about classifying human beings" and continues by only highlighting a few quotes from the book. These quotes probably bother him or conflict with his own ideas. It is a classic example of how people take things (objective) and interpret them for their own purposes (subjective). He ultimately dismisses the book by saying that "The Ewens are good, though, at one thing: conveying what the reader ought to think." It would be interesting to read Berreby's autobiography.

Anyone who reads the preface of Typecasting will know that there were many reasons for the authors to write this book. Two general reasons:

1. The absence of an overarching history.

2. To find connections (using history, language, science, psychology, culture, sociology, religion, etc.) that would help to illuminate the rise of modern stereotyping.

More significantly, I think one of their objectives was to ignite a discussion on various issues that were and still are plaguing our world. It is extremely difficult to be hopeful and optimistic with so many issues facing us: racism - overt and subtle, media consolidation - misinformation, propaganda and its influences on people, media illiteracy, hierarchies and power, unlearning family and socially constructed ideas, free speech and censorship, religious intolerance, intolerance in general, religion in general... Oh my God (not sure if I believe in God sometimes) it is overwhelming. The problems seem infinite.

Stereotyping is a profoundly fascinating and interesting topic to explore. It is enigmatic because of its subtle connections to people and societies. I just don't understand how a person can disagree with the observations of Bill Moyers, Kurt Vonnegut, Barbara Ehrenreich, Deborah Willis and Mike Davis in regards to this book. I had to read it over and over and over sometimes, but I sincerely appreciate the contributions Typecasting has made, especially parts two and five - Taxonomies of Human Difference and The Modern Battlegrounds of Type. Here are some of my own reflections:

Ewen and Ewen leave us with this: "In a complex and dangerous world, the allure of the simple is addictive. But the habits of typecasting can offer us little wisdom. We must educate ourselves to understand these habits, and to demand public discussion that is based on knowledge, understanding, and a belief in the possibility of egalitarian community. Without this, democracy cannot exist." So, how does a person reflect on this?

1. People are subjective. Okay, yes people are malleable as well but that depends on so many other circumstances.

2. Everybody is or was oppressed. Nobody likes oppressors. Groups of people feel that their suffering is unique. Understanding is impossible.

3. It is extremely harder to unlearn things than it is to learn them.

4. No matter what people say - movies, symbols, artworks, advertisements, music, books, magazines, radio programs and a person's own individual experiences actually do reinforce certain thoughts, ideas, feelings and the most damaging of all, actions.

5. No matter what people say - people are racist. Every single person. You and me and everybody else. I know that is a horrible thing to say and imagine but it is an undeniable truth. Of course there are different levels of racism within a person but the fact that it is instilled within us is a disturbing thought.

6. Labels are inevitable - democrats, republicans, liberals, conservatives, leftists, people on the right, feminists, evil/hero, fanatics/athiests, among many others.

7. Subliminal messages are sometimes overwhelming and if you live in New York City, they can drive you crazy. It is almost universal, especially now because it seems as though everything is going digital all around the world.

8. The Internet - is it good or bad? Every tool is a weapon if you hold it right. Please don't take that out of context.

9. Public relations and advertisting are still largely based on manipulating.

10. Free speech issues - Ward Churchill, Michael Richards, Don Imus, etc.? Free speech in public spaces/colleges?

Trite words of wisdom: Nobody is an island.

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