The world is better-connected than ever before and its youth can communicate and interact in a way which transcends space and borders, yet borders clearly remain in our perceptions of other nations, cemented by age-old stereotypes and mistrust. A new generation of European youth has the means to break these barriers and to build a truly inclusive Greater Europe which truly embraces the 21st century.
Stereotypes are also formed by the mass media. (Source: www.acus.org)
But there are a lot of challenges. As much as political and technological developments have changed, attitudes and preconceptions still remain ingrained in our consciousness and stereotypes. When we consider what exactly a stereotype implies, we see that it implies 'a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing'. Stereotypes have indeed always existed in some form or another, but in the 21st century there is a good reason for reflecting upon them, for unlike our Shakespearean forebears whose stereotypes often had no consequences (viewers were just as unlikely to see Venice as they were to see a Moor such as Othello), we can instantly be exposed to the people we stereotype. We can also be easily exposed to stereotypes through mass-media and film, television and music, so not only is there a higher chance to combat stereotypes, but there is also a higher chance to be susceptible to them. What is different, though, is the globalised world we live in, and the reality and consequences of stereotypes.
The consequences go beyond the sort of banter about German tourists infallibly getting the best sun loungers - something which never ceases to provide chit-chat for Brits abroad who wake up too late to get a good spot by the pool. Stereotypes have serious consequences too. There is such a thing as stereotype threat which has been documented in the United States by Steele and Aronson (1995). Research showed that when race was emphasised, black college freshmen and sophomores performed worse than white students. Conversely when race was not emphasised, black students performed equally well and in many cases better than white students. It shows that a priori assumptions of groups can be self-fulfilling - people assume a group to display certain characteristics and in turn this group comes to display them.
Russians in the United States are also subject to stereotypes. There are a lot of movies made in the USA about Russian spies, the KGB and the mafia. This extends to the notion that Russians drink excessively, are aggressive and are party animals. Many have had no possibility to compose their personal opinion based on real interactions with Russians, so they use the information from mass media and trust it blindly. A lot of this is down to cultural differences. In Russia the expression "Улыбка без причины, признак дурачины" explains why Americans often think Russians aren't friendly - the expression says that smiling without a reason is a sign of stupidity. This couldn't contrast more with American culture of smiling frequently. From the idea that Russians are unfriendly, assuming them to be aggressive isn't a huge leap, especially given the reputation and diplomacy of Russia, which was built mainly during the years of Soviet Russia with its limited international relations and specifications of government regime.
The Royal Family tapping into stereotypes. (Source: www.justjared.com)
The English are also subject to some interesting stereotypes from Russians. Namely related to conservatism, the monarchy and afternoon tea - all of which stem from a bygone era of top hats, waistcoats and empire. There is also an idea that the English are quite closed, which is as much a reflection of the UK (seen as a difficult place to be allowed to visit) as it is a reflection of some of the more conservative elements of the culture. Certainly the ever-diminishing list of countries which lay claim to a thousand-year-old monarchy is another feature which distinguishes England, and is linked very much to these interlinking ideas of conservatism, tradition and strange clothes. The stereotypes of England are in some ways historical anachronisms, but these are important nonetheless for they have some influence on the current events.
In recent years Europe has seen several protests and tensions amidst uncertainty regarding the future of the Eurozone; in angst, many protesters have looked to the past to vindicate their grievances. Commentators have noticed an increased use of Nazi symbolism and euphemism, especially when referring to German politicians, but this has started to penetrate beyond politics, with German singer Ute Lemper implored the Greeks "not think of me as a German" before giving concerts there.
Protests in Europe have had an anti-German theme lately, tapping into historical conceptions. (Source: www.csmonitor.com)
The 'World according to' series of stereotype maps by Yanko Tsvetkov has achieved online popularity by condensing a particular nation's world view into one picture. Although entertaining, they reflect a continuum of views and assumptions which sit somewhere between truth and ignorance. As a new generation of youth we have more opportunities to see whether these have any truth in them than any other generation. Yet we also have more opportunities to be told what a group of people is like without even having to leave our homes.
Stereotypes from the past are just that: from the past. It may make for lucrative realpolitik to exploit them in order to achieve political ends, as in the case with many Eastern European countries and Russia, but ultimately, with the beginning of a new era new opportunities come and we should aim to see what brings us together as opposed to what separates us.
The Youth Association for a Greater Europe believes that young people from East and West have a lot in common as well as a lot of distinctive characteristics, and that as young people we can achieve more and bring people together by recognising what we share and what we collectively aspire to achieve.