defending the indefensible

How do you react when someone mocks or derides a group that you identify with, but for reasons that you agree with?

I’ll give some examples.

1) Suppose you are a Catholic person who agrees with much of Catholic teaching, but you use contraception and you don’t believe that using contraception is a sin.  Someone makes fun of “Catholics” for being against contraception.  What do you do?

2) Suppose you are a Jewish person who agrees with much of Judaic teaching, but you do not keep kosher and you don’t think G-d really cares whether you keep kosher or not. Someone makes fun of “Jews” for having such strict and arbitrary dietary rules. How do you respond?

3) Suppose you are a liberal who agrees with most views generally seen as “liberal” in American culture today, but you are not against genetically modified food and you think that it is really helpful when science experiments on our crops and the risks are over-exaggerated. Someone makes fun of “liberals” for being “organic-eating, vegan hippies.” What do you say?

4) Suppose you are a conservative who agrees with most views seen as “conservative,” especially the economic ones, but you are in favor of marriage equality and don’t really see why it matters who marries whom. Someone makes fun of “conservatives” for being homophobic and bigoted. What do you say?


These are some tough questions. They are sources of tension whenever they come up in conversation. These situations involve deeply held beliefs, and even identity, and so they obviously can get emotional.

The funny thing is, in reality, they come up all the time. Moreover, if you are being honest with yourself, you’ll admit that there is probably more than one way that you might react in situations like this.  It will depend on your mood, and the emotional tenor of the conversation. If you feel like you’re being attacked, you’re more likely to be defensive or even lash out… even though you agree (in principle) with the thing that is being criticized. On the other hand, if you feel comfortable with the other person in the conversation and you feel like it’s friendly environment, you might be more willing to admit, “Yeah, there are some people who are like that, and I think they are dopes, as well.”

Some people get very offended, and very defensive about distinguishing between themselves and the rest of their group.  They say, “Well, I’m not personally like that, so you shouldn’t make generalizations and attack the whole group like that!”

In the last several months, I’ve specifically had Catholics tell me,

“I personally am not a bigot, so you shouldn’t criticize ‘Catholics’ because we are not all the same!”


“Most Catholics use contraception, so you shouldn’t poke fun at ‘Catholics’ for being against contraception because it’s really just the Church and not most of its members!”

I will admit: I am not swayed by this type of reasoning.  I’ve never been convinced by the argument, “Not every single X is Y, therefore you shouldn’t make the generalization that X’s are Y.”

It certainly isn’t a restriction anyone worries about, except in these specific highly-charged situations. Winters are cold.  Yes, there have been some winters that have not been cold, but that doesn’t mean it’s “wrong” to say that winters are cold. There are plenty of situations where it’s perfectly reasonable to point out a general tendency, even if there are some exceptions to that tendency.

Although I am not a Catholic, I can try to imagine being in the parallel situation that I can identify with. In my case, it’s scenario #3, above.  Lots of liberals are the anti-science, tree-hugging “eat all organic” hippie types.  I am not. In fact, I’m adamantly the opposite: I love synthetic food, I’m strong in favor of genetic engineering, I have no problem with artificially enhanced food products, and I don’t mind pesticides and preservatives in my salad.  So I’m totally on board with making fun of “hippies.”

So when someone says, “Liberals are all damn hippies!” what do I do? Do I got all up in a high dudgeon and say, “Well! Harrumph! You should not say that ‘liberals’ are hippies, because I’m a liberal and I’m not that way!’

Meh… not really, no. I’m much more likely to say, “Yeah, I know the type of people you mean… and they are pretty silly, if you ask me.”

Of course, if pressed, I’m still going to tell people that I’m in favor of big government, regulation, and taxes.  This might confuse them a little bit, and if that ends up resulting in a discussion then fine.  But I’m not going to crank up the outrage machine and defend “liberals” (as a group) for something that 1) I know a lot of liberals really do believe and that 2) I personally disagree with.

Are they making an over-generalization when they say, “All liberals are granola-eating hippies”?  Obviously, yes. But everyone makes over-generalizations. I think getting “offended” at every turn is a lot less useful, quite frankly, than finding common points of ground in a conversation.

If you agree with the criticism, then agree with the criticism.  Then, later on, it might even make them more open to hearing you tell them the details about the other details of what you believe.

Defensive? I'm not being defensive!

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