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Stereotyping and Labelling, Dangerous to Individuals and Society

BY JACK HAMILTON AND ELISABETH SEAMAN

Co-Authors of 'Conflict-The Unexpected Gift'

In a book published in June 2019 , David Maraniss’s A Good American Family: The Red Scare and My Father, the author asks us to consider what is labeled as “lawful” and what is labeled as “illegal." His father had been a Communist Party member who, however, never advocated the overthrow of the American government and never violated any laws. Despite his father’s record of being a law-abiding citizen all his life, the House Un-American Activities Committee called him to testify to the Committee.

Labeling a disfavored group an existential threat to the American government is an effective propaganda technique, even in the free world. The author seems indignant about his father being accused unfairly of being complicit in denouncing capitalism, which is a cornerstone of American democracy, by having been a member of the Communist party at an earlier time.

The author contrasts his father’s life and actions with those of the chairman of that Committee, whose record included a number of damaging actions. Maraniss asks: “Which man should we consider un-American?”

Stereotyping and labeling people due to their affiliations without the critical thinking that is required in a democracy like ours can lead to snap judgments that can be damaging, both to the individuals and to society.

"The human tendency to generalize from single perceptions about a person produces the familiar 'halo effect.' It is the cognitive tendency to see people in either all-positive or all-negative ways that psychologists have documented since at least 1920.”

AMY CUDDY

Harvard Business School Professor

We write in our book, Conflict—The Unexpected Gift, “…stereotypes cause us to base a judgment about a person on a limited amount of evidence, as if that represented everything about the person.” House Un-American Activities Committee members tried to judge Maraniss’s father as an undeniable threat to American society because of one fact and one fact only—that he had been a member of the Community Party.

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