On archetypes

by The Editor

TheThingAboutSERIES: It is surprising how ubiquitous archetypes are in any society. Sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit, we spend much time advocating for various different stereotypes and, with that, indulging in the moral auditing that inevitably accompanies that approach. But no archetype exists in the real world, they are a fiction, and so it is worth distinguishing between principles and archetypes because we confuse the two to our great disadvantage.

On archetypes

By: Gareth van Onselen

31 January 2013

Any archetype is an imagined ideal. That is, it exists in abstract, as a pure and absolute description of a person.

The problem with any archetype, therefore, is its application in the real world. Every principle is an ideal; its great attribute being that it is aspirational – never fully realised but something towards which everyone can aim. Stereotypes, however, differ fundamentally from principles. By their very nature they are exclusionary, a means of separating ‘us’ from ‘them’, and so they cannot be universally applied and are divisive not uniting. In turn, they are not aspirational. As an idea they have a definite ceiling and lend themselves to abuse; for who controls the definition, controls the archetype.

Thus, the business of defining a particular archetype is often the source of much controversy, a messy negotiation between the identity power brokers of race, religion, class or ethnicity. They seek two things: first, to control identity and discourse; second, by being definitive, to associate themselves with the ostensible virtues of their creation or, alternatively, to disassociate themselves from its apparent vices. In this way they augment their position as a gatekeeper of culture and character, and their power in turn.

Any individual might, of their own volition, identity with an archetype – and that is their right – but, when those in power begin to advocate for archetypes as a ‘true’ reflection of human nature, universally applicable to a group and against which people’s character can be measured in order that some moral determination might be made as to their standing in a society, that is a sure path to authoritarianism. For each person is different, unique, and whether or not they relate to an archetype, they will never embody it fully.

Ultimately, then, they are a fiction.

We use archetypes because ideals are appealing and the sense of commonality they engender, comforting. But one must understand they are imagined. Beware those that would prescribe archetypes, they are the enemies of freedom; their agenda is control and a set identity their means to that end.

An abbreviated version of this column first appeared in the Business Day. For more columns from The Thing About series, click here.

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