The Handbook: Generalizing, Judging, and Shaming.

The Handbook: Generalizing, Judging, and Shaming. February 11, 2015
The Holy Spirit depicted as a dove, surrounded...
The Holy Spirit depicted as a dove, surrounded by angels, by Giaquinto, 1750s. (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Dr.Spock for Christians?

Welcome back! I hope y’all’s weekends were fantabulous. I’m likely recovering from another one of those shots in the back as you read these words, so let’s all hope that Future Me is doing all right. Monday Night Me is doing fine for now. Today I want to talk about something I notice Christians doing a lot, something that a new ex-Christian might not notice right away or recognize for what it is: over-generalizing, judging, and shaming anybody whose life doesn’t fit into a desired narrative. We’ll cover not only how to notice it but also options for responding to it.

Today’s post was prompted by something making the rounds of social media lately, a fountain of bullshit called “A Stay-At-Home Mom: Five Hot-Button Reasons,” penned by a young, thin, pretty preacher’s wife named Hannah Giselbach. In her blog post, she offered up five reasons why she isn’t a stay-at-home-mom (SAHM), and five reasons why she is, along with a lot of mommy-shaming and lofty judging–all couched in sanctimonious preening about how she’s totally not judging.

Her theses are two: first, that working wives and mothers are blasphemy against her god and also are quite possibly terrible housekeepers and parents, and second, that isn’t she just the most amazing wunnerful mama ever ever ever, why just lookit her cute widdle baby, how could some evil nasty person not want to live the exact same life she does, they must not love their poor widdle kids like she does!

Remember how we’ve mentioned that newlywed Christian men all seem to have a perfect handle on How To Do Marriage Perfectly? Well, you’ll be happy to know that at age 25 and only four months into her first baby, Ms. Giselbach has totally locked down How To Do Motherhood Perfectly–and like her peers, she is more than happy to hold herself out as the example everybody should follow. This piece has it all, from the concern trolling to hectoring women who don’t often have a real choice about working or not working, all sandwiched between sanctimonious posturing about how she’s totally not being judge-y or anything while she’s busy judging every other woman whose life doesn’t look like hers. But for all its real shortcomings, it was a perfect piece to illustrate the topic I’d already wanted to discuss today.

Generalizing isn’t, in and of itself, always bad. It’s not like we can avoid doing it. When we subconsciously detect gaps in perception or awareness, our brains “paint in” the blank spots with generalizations so we have a perception of constancy, which can take the form of “seeing” a road or fence as contiguous, or with seeing everybody in a crowd as wearing particular scarves. Normally we don’t even notice our brains doing this stuff, it’s that ubiquitous and that constant. We can also subconsciously generalize with predictions about how people will act or what they’ll say; I used to tense up whenever one of my first boyfriends said, “Hey, listen….” because I knew he was about to say something I wasn’t going to like. I didn’t even notice I was doing it till he mentioned it one day. Whenever something’s always been the same before, our brains don’t have much reason to be paying top attention, so we “paint in” what we’re expecting to see or hear and react accordingly.

This innocent mental shorthand can become maladaptive when we generalize people and condemn them for not conforming to our generalizations, or when those generalizations take the form of prejudices and marginalization. When someone expects all people of X group to be abusive jerks and denies them the same opportunities as other groups, that’s when generalization tips over into less savory territory. A big part of that maladaptive nature comes in when the person making the generalization just doesn’t have a lot of experience with the group being judged. Someone who is young or sheltered–as Ms. Giselbach very clearly is–won’t have a large sample size from which to work, so her generalizations about other women aren’t going to be as accurate as that of someone who’s gotten to know a great many working women.

And, too, generalizations fall into stereotyping and become harmful to our functioning when we start assigning negative qualities to a group based on nothing more than our own preconceptions and biases. Racism is in a lot of ways a form of generalizing, as is sexism.

It’s still a seductive way to arrange people and society, especially for the black-and-white thinking so often encouraged in Christianity.

A checklist:

* If you find yourself starting a sentence with “Christians are…” or “Men never…”, or even “You always/never…” chances are you’re heading into maladaptive generalization territory.

No group is monolithic, meaning that no group is one big block of total uniformity and smoothness. Even groups that have hurt us in the past aren’t possible to totally generalize. There are as many decent people who are Christians as there are men who do whatever it is someone thinks men never do, and so on. Always/never wording is a great way to uncover a generalization. Ms. Giselbach gloats all through her piece about her superiority as a SAHM to mothers who work, implying that they’re always on their cell phones, that they don’t care about their kids, and that they are “squandering” their children’s finite youth–all because not all women make the same choices she has, and indeed not all women even have that possibility. I don’t think she’s known a lot of working mothers, but it’s hard to come out of that post without thinking that she really doesn’t think much of what she thinks they are like.

* If you think that anybody who isn’t like you is doing something horribly, terribly wrong at a fundamental level, that’s a cause for concern.

At one point in her post, Ms. Giselbach writes,

In other words, if I’m unloving, indiscreet, unchaste, disobedient to my husband…and if I’m not a homemaker, I, by my own actions, may cause the Word to be blasphemed. Directly or indirectly, I partake in this sad and sinful scenario.

And then she gets totally shocked and gobsmacked when people correctly interpret what she wrote as “anybody who isn’t a homemaker is blaspheming the ‘Word’.” First, though, here’s a very important note for non-fundagelicals: “blaspheming the Holy Spirit” is widely understood in that crowd to be the one totally unforgivable sin. Do this, and there’s no way to get forgiveness and you are going instantly to Hell. Thankfully, nobody really knows just what “blaspheming the Holy Spirit” really looks like in action, but apparently to this Christian lady it involves working outside the home (I’d have guessed murder, but I’m not a god, I reckon). I don’t think she actually understands what it is any more than any Christian theologian I’ve read tackling the topic, but even barring that callow, careless implied threat to her audiences’ souls, she still goes on to chirp that women who work outside the home must have a “frenzied, spiritually lacking routine” at home at night and that their families’ spiritual development will clearly and obviously suffer for their mothers’ lack of 24/7 availability–all because she can’t even imagine for one heartbeat a family structure that doesn’t look like what she’s used to seeing.

* If your stated solution to the problem is “everybody should just be more like me,” chances are you’re unfairly generalizing.

Ms. Giselbach is downright confused and floored that not all women want to define themselves solely by their motherhood status, and worse (to her), not all mothers put their whole lives on hold for their babies. She talks often about how her little heart breaks, how it aches, how it swells, oh the poor little thing, she’s just sooooo saaaaaad about how harrrrrrrd it must be for those poor other ladies who just don’t love their babies like she loves hers, who get all distracted by evil money and accomplishments and housework and don’t glue themselves to their babies like she has to hers. (I’ve got no words for how weird and creepy it is to me when she goes on and on and ON about “the lump in her throat” and “sick feeling in the pit of [her] stomach” at the idea of her baby growing up. It’s a baby, and it’s supposed to grow up; it’s not a fashion accessory that might get lost.) There is just no room in her life for any other life story or narrative, no room in her life for any legitimate reasons for any mother to work outside the home. She is the ideal mother, and no other model of motherhood is valid. She claims to be “guilt-free,” but she sounds like she has a lot of guilt to me–and it sounds like she’s working out her guilt by trying to force all other women to validate her life choices by agreeing that her model of motherhood is the best possible model for everybody.

* Especially watch out for the offering of non-solutions to get everybody to be more like you.

Ms. Giselbach doesn’t appear to have the faintest idea what real poverty looks like. She’s got the choice to stay home–with sacrifice, yes, but she has that choice. Chances are, to be honest, she couldn’t earn enough money on her own to clear enough to justify her working outside the home, so it’s good that she and her husband both are on the same page about her staying home. That’s great, and if it is what works for her then awesome, good for her to have a life situation that supports her desire. Most women aren’t that lucky. I know a lot of women who’d love to stay home and be the perfect mommyblogger just like her, always there for their kids, baking cookies and doing all that fun stuff, but they aren’t in a life situation that allows them to do that. And non-solutions don’t cut it for them in their real lives. She implies that people just don’t care enough about their children to make the sacrifices she so nobly has made, but that’s just not the reality for most people. She chirps about her own sacrifices like her life is somehow indicative or representative of every woman’s life, but doesn’t seem even vaguely aware of how unlike most people’s lives her privileged existence really is. In the same way, when someone generalizes and offers a ridiculous non-solution to “fix” the problem the generalization seems to have uncovered, we should be listening to the pushback that is received. Often it is not only sincere but accurate.

When someone generalizes about you, then it’s fair to offer civil pushback–just like it’s fair for others to protest if you do it to them.

In the case of Ms. Giselbach’s blithering nonsense about working mothers, a number of people of all genders did offer exactly that civil pushback in comments both on the blog post and on Facebook–not that she cared or took note of it, of course, beyond whining about feeling misunderstood. I’ll paraphrase some of it here because we can adapt it in a lot of ways to other forms of generalizations we face, especially as ex-Christians:

* “I wish that worked for me, but it really doesn’t.”

* “I don’t actually want to stay home and my children seem perfectly fine and well-adjusted.”

* “Please don’t characterize all working mothers as frenzied, frenetic messes with dirty houses.”

* “Not all women want to give up careers they find rewarding and pleasurable.”

* “It’s not fair to imply that any woman who doesn’t do things just like this is sinful.”

* “I really can’t afford to stay home no matter how many ‘luxuries’ I cut out of my budget.”

I didn’t see anybody mentioning being unable to stay home because they are single parents, damn your eyes, but certainly I know women who are in that boat. I guess they can just go sit in the hall while the married/partnered mommies argue and try to outdo each other.

We do want to be careful, when refuting a generalization, about falling into ultra-anal-retentive territory like “Tell me exactly what day I was a smug prat to your parents” or “No no no, just last week I totally took out the trash for you so I don’t always neglect my share of the household work!” Generalizations speak to our perceptions, remember; they are our brains filling in blank spaces. And they often go straight to the core of our secret prejudices, especially when we’re talking about marginalized or demonized groups–or people we want to demonize. Ms. Giselbach really believes that working mothers are terrible people, for example. Even if she met a bunch of wonderful working mothers, chances are she’d cordon them off in her mind as just being way-better-than-average members of a terrible group. Aligning her view of working mothers with reality would involve totally dismantling a lot of her preconceptions of the family and of women’s roles in a family. Worse than that, though, she’d also have to give up her exalted status as the Most Dedicated Mommy Ever. It’s a lot easier to, instead, continue to vilify working mothers than to give up her status and to restructure her opinion around reality.

In the end, generalizations say more about the person making them than they do about the group being forced into shiny metal boxes. We should be listening for these judgments and calling them out when we see them, and encouraging their creators to educate themselves a little more.

We might talk a little more about this post and what it says about Christian misogyny some other time–because hold my bra it’s genuinely pissed me off in a way that not much Christian hatemongering and pandering has for a while–but I just wanted to focus on how its author uses generalizations to demoralize, judge, and vilify women who didn’t make (or couldn’t make) the same choices she has.

PS: Tuesday Night Me is doing fine, just really tired.

(h/t Friendly Atheist)

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