Here’s the thing. It’s accepted now in these times of triumphant individualism that we are all unique, all different and wonderfully made in God’s image. Of course I accept this. How could it be otherwise? Every person has their own unique bodies, a sensibility that no one else can completely copy, even brothers and sisters born less than a year apart, to the same parents, in the same neighbourhoods, become very different people. It is fact.
One reason our era holds this creed so firmly is to present a bulwark against the age old creeping rational for racism, sexism, heterosexism, and classism. We’ve all heard the nonsense of comparisons between us and them, between some group we belong to and another group “over there”. Of course these comparisons are not about trying to understand difference, they are principally about defining superiority. You can always tell the difference between a comparison resting in analysis and one securely rooted in fear and distain by the judgment expressed. If the comparison is suggesting one group is better than you know the intent. It’s very obvious.
But here’s the thing. Everybody, and I mean everybody, generalizes. Even at the seminary I attended in the late 80’s, where there always seemed to be a competition as to who could claim the most righteous purity on matters of generalizations I would catch some unsuspecting innocent saying out loud, “That’s the thing about rich people, they’re all…” Or, “White Anglo Saxon Protestants are clearly the most repressed people on earth…” I am certainly not going to suggest, as Trump supporters do, that rich people or WASP’s have any reasons to claim to be a victim (that is a joke!) but I am saying that if you claim you never generalizing about any group you are not being honest with yourself or others.
In my previous church I used to speak about the difference between the way rural folks, suburban people and urban types related to their landscape and each other. I still believe these comparisons (I do not suggest one is better than the other, just different) are valid. Are they true for every living soul who lives in one of these three types of communities? Of course not! But are they generally true? I think so. Still many people then would get defensive and suggest I was unfairly generalizing, holding out that old platitude “we are all different, all unique…” Except…It never took long for these same persons to say “women think this way, men think that way.” They would say this without any kind of embarrassment. You can bet your bottom dollar I would remind them! It sure sounded like a generalization to me. Or people would tell me they knew why a person did this or that because they too were a mother or a father and thus they knew. The implication was clear, all mothers and father had certain common traits. So much for everyone is different, everyone is unique.
The reality we use comparisons to try and understand things. Most would agree Canadians are generally more deferential than our southern neighbours. Most would agree that evangelical worship tends to be more emotive than mainline church worship practices. Neither of these comparisons are shared with an obvious nod to one being superior or as a put-down to another. Is it true that every single American is less deferential than every single Canadian or that every single evangelical Christian is more emotive in worship than every single mainline church Christian? Of course not! But is the comparison valid, even helpful? I think so.
I don’t think we can ever get rid of generalizations. What we can do, what we should do, is try to make sure they are not a smoke screen for suggesting “our side is good, the others are bad”. That’s just wrong. And there ought to be a testing, a chance for others to weigh in and tell us if our generalization resonates for more than our own impressions.
In fact this is another opportunity for me to impress on people the importance of talking to people who are not like you. The more we get out of our bubble, the less we rely exclusively on our own limited experience, and the more we truly understand what is going on around us, from multiple angles, the more we really know how our perception of things is accurate or just our own view of things.