To understand the world, stereotypes must be overcome

Steno Sari

by Steno Sari — Stereotypes have always helped us in classifying the world around us. Like compasses, they orient us in a reality that is otherwise too big for us, which is thus tamed and subdivided, with little subtlety, into Manichaean, clear-cut alignments between good and bad, civilised and uncivilised, inside and outside, near and far. We easily become affectionate to stereotypes and find it difficult to abandon them, because they manage to exert a calming, soothing action on us; they reassure us by giving us confirmation that the reality we are facing is clear, just as we should have expected, without any disturbing anomalies.

But we know that the world is far more complex and unknown than we dare to think. When we realise this, we may feel disoriented or even frightened because the characters to be placed in the boxes do not always go in the place we would have thought. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, it could mean an enlightening discovery for us.

We were reminded of this by Giorgio Treves' film, 'The Cross and the Swastika', an investigative journey presented on Friday evening at the Rome Film Festival. In the immense human tragedy of the Holocaust, we discover that in the Nazi concentration camps not only millions of Jews were locked up and killed, but also those we would not expect to find. And what were many of the Christian faith doing in the camps, lumped in with the victims of the wanted extermination of the Jews? For Hitler, these Christians, unlike the other prisoners, might well have belonged to his vaunted Aryan race, but their choice to belong to a particular Christian faith still made them unworthy to live. In the midst of Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox dissidents, the case of Jehovah's Witnesses was singular. The Nazis did not tolerate them and Hitler himself vowed to wipe them out. For some, this may be a discovery that breaks some old stereotypes.

In order not to renounce their ideals of faith, such as that of not killing, the Witnesses chose to be killed and shared the fate of those who for reasons other than their own - ethnicity, political choice or sexual orientation - were imprisoned in the concentration camps. Simone Arnold-Liebster, whose story is told in Treves' film, writes in her autobiographical book 'Alone before the Lion': 'People animated by an ideal possess an unexpected strength. Hope is the only good available to all men. Even the dispossessed still possess it'.

And still stereotypes and prejudices condition our view of those we consider different, or even just annoying by definition, just like the Jehovah's Witness who stops us in the street. Discovering that we too are carriers of stereotypes and prejudices can be disorienting. But at the same time, the discovery can broaden our horizons. It is up to us to choose whether to be content with dusty preconceived stereotypes, with which to casually assign a role and value to the people around us, or instead to accept the challenge of confronting the world with the risk of discovering it to be different and realising that we must change our perspective in order to learn to live as fully as possible.

Article appeared on Libero on 23 October 2022 and republished, with the author's permission, on the occasion of the broadcast on RAI 3 of the film 'The Cross and the Swastika' by Giorgio Treves