Eagleton on stereotypes

Terry Eagleton had an hilarious review of Typecasting: on the Arts and Sciences of Human Inequality in the London Review of Books. The article, alas, has disappeared behind a paywall, but here are two passages which made me laugh.

It would make for a bolder, more innovative study than this one to put in a good word for stereotypes, even though academics at certain American universities might find themselves under fire for doing so. Those of us who are not American academics, however, may feel less constrained. It is an open secret, for example, that Ulster Protestants are not by and large dandyish aesthetes notable for their extravagant wordplay and surreal sense of humour. The English middle classes are for the most part less physically and emotionally expressive than Neapolitan dockers. It is unusual to meet a working-class Liverpudlian who dresses for dinner, other than in the sense of putting on a shirt. Corporation executives tend not to be Dadaists.


Academics who study these facts are known as sociologists, and like Stalinists have no interest in individuals. Without stereoypping of some kind, social life would grind to a halt. If the plumber turns up to fix drains dressed in tights and a tutu, I would natually be liberal-minded enough to invite him to perform a few pirouettes at the sink; but if the bank manager insists on discussing my loan in Latvian, I might take my business elsewhere. Human freedom is a question of life being reasonably predictable, not of being joyously liberated from rules. Unless we can calculate the effects of our actions, which includes the way others might typically respond to them, we will be incapable of realising our projects effctively.

Footnote: Apropos plumbers in tights, J. Edgar Hoover, the fearsome Director of the FBI who held even presidents in thrall, was a distinguished cross-dresser who wore tutus to informal social occasions. The absurd thing is that he didn’t have the legs for it, being short and stocky of build, and exceedingly hirsute to boot.