More dangerous than a rabid raccoon with a bump stock, less reliable than a third-generation dictator with a 10th-grade education, and worse for the health of the general public than pink-slime burgers topped with hydrogenated cheese-food is the free and easy use of the broad brush.

We tend toward the tribal. We care about our team. Sometimes life seems truly us-against-them, in a zero-sum game, and if we’ve seen one of those people from the other side, we’ve seen them all. Even the most open-minded among us might drift toward lumping folks into groups. But the only sweeping generalization one can accurately make about human beings is that no sweeping generalization about human beings is reliably accurate.

Don’t call me a “media type”; I shall take offense. We often stereotype police officers — and they’re as apt to stereotype the public — but I do not envy good cops because of the heavy burden placed on them by bad cops. Watch the evening news, sure; but then go have coffee with your local officers, community members who have first names and children and favorite colors. Talk is cheap.

In Maine, it is required that we stereotype “summer people,” more by custom and tradition than whether or not they’ve done anything idiotic recently. On Matinicus, we stereotype … sternmen? All it takes is a few dog-kicking, drunk-driving, bad-check deadbeats on the lam from adult responsibility, thinking a fishing boat is a good place to hide from the ol’ lady and the judge, and every young fella with bait on his hoodie gets a bad name. It isn’t right.

Then, the rest of the midcoast area has always stereotyped Matinicus Island. “Isn’t that where everybody shoots at each other, ha ha ha?” The best over-the-top Matinicus folklore you’ll find anywhere is what new teachers invariably hear from their friends and relatives as they prepare to move here to work in our one-room school. When it was my turn, back in 1987, one of the guys I worked with in the hardware store insisted, “You can’t go out there! They kill people out there! They’ll throw a guy overboard, and when he tries to climb back aboard the boat, they pound on his knuckles with a bait iron!”

I still laugh at that one. I swear, ’tis true; that is what I heard as a 23-year-old soon-to-be schoolmarm.

 


Of course, that’s all baloney, mostly. I might make fun of how the people of this island are depicted in the chatter as a bunch of pirates who draw a bead on every stranger, or how we brush off new neighbors as green and ignorant in the Traditional Island Folkways like how to order groceries by fax. But it isn’t always funny. In fact, stereotyping isn’t funny at all.

Taken too far it’s one of the most dangerous things we can do.

There is a serious side to this, and we see it in the news and online every day. Joking aside, language about how “those people” are all the same is how we are gradually, subtly convinced to condone violence, accept brutality, and keep quiet as our brothers and sisters bear pain and insult. In time of war, they are not “German grandmothers” or “Vietnamese children” or “Iraqi teachers and doctors” but simply “the Enemy.” Anytime we hear, “Those people — they’re all alike,” we’d better block our ears. We are being lied to. We are, quite possibly, being weaponized.

Oh, but a casual remark, all in fun, isn’t an act of malice and we’re just kidding! Certainly that is true — but still, best we pay attention.

On a lighter note, aboard the ferry bound for Rockland, I got to chatting with the captain, who said he grew up near Skowhegan. As a teenager in the late 1970s he’d always heard that “Rockland was a no-go area.” Likewise, I’ve told the story before about getting off the Greyhound bus, aged 16 or 17, and the little old lady I was sitting next to suggested, “Dear, can’t you get your relatives to pick you up in Thomaston? You shouldn’t get off in Rockland! They have motorcycle gangs in Rockland!”

Mention of the ferry service brings up an irritating stereotype occasionally subscribed to by legislators from inland who don’t think we need to spend loggers’ and millworkers’ tax dollars on a ferry system for the coastal elite. Some have the idea that islanders are all either rich summer people, swells on vacation with their butlers and chefs, who do not need taxpayer-funded public services such as a ferry, or else are anti-social cranks, addled, frothy-mouthed hermits who have resigned from civilization and thus would not use taxpayer-funded public services such as a ferry. Maine’s island residents are supposedly “the outlaws and the Rockefellers.”

That sounds like a good name for a band.