the over-generalization over-generalization

Last week a Christian tried to fire-bomb a Planned Parenthood clinic. The reporting on these stories always bothers me: it is terrorism, but it is not reported as such. More specifically it’s Christian terrorism, but it is never reported as such. When terrorism is performed by someone of middle-eastern descent, the media will spend days speculating over whether it’s Islamic terrorism or not; but when an American Christian performs an act of terrorism that he actually says is motivated by his Christianity, it is not reported as Christian terrorism.

I find this irritating. So, I went on a little twitter tirade:

Greg Stevens@gregstevens YET ANOTHER radical Christian terrorist. When will Christians stand up and condemn the terrorists among them?
Greg Stevens@gregstevens I’m not saying ALL Christians are terrorists. But what does it mean that so many terrorists are Christian?
Greg Stevens@gregstevens Until the Christian leaders publicly and LOUDLY condemn radical Christian terrorists, they share in the blame.
Greg Stevens@gregstevens Isn’t it time Congress held a hearing about the increasing problem of Christian Terrorists in America?
Greg Stevens@gregstevens  When Christians set off firebombs on American soil… doesn’t that effectively mean Christianity is at war with America?
Greg Stevens@gregstevens  I don’t think all Christians are murderers; but how can you belong to a religion associated with terrorism and murder?

In my own mind, it is clear what I was doing with these tweets.  I was deliberately taking the same kind of rhetoric that conservative Christians regularly use against Muslims, and turning it around. Leading questions like “I’m not saying all Christians are terrorists, but…” is the type of thing that ones hears on almost a daily basis on talk radio channels here in Texas, only directed at Muslims instead of Christians. Similarly with the invocation of the idea of “hearings”, the idea of a religion being “at war with America,” and so on: all of these are tropes that have been used loudly and widely on conservative radio and television for many years when talking about Muslims.

Were my tweets meant to be inflammatory? Sure.  But they were also meant to be obvious references to their counter-part statements made about Muslims by conservative Christians. Never did I imagine that anyone would take these statements at face-value. The whole point was to highlight the hypocrisy and the double-standard between the way people talk about Muslims, and the way people talk about Christians.

Naturally, not everyone in the entire twitter universe “got it.”

I was accused of making gross generalizations about Christians. (Which, in fact, I was.) In response to this accusation I pointed out my motivation: I explained that every single statement I made was a reversal, a mirror-image, of statements that conservative Christians have made about Muslims. I explained that I was trying to make a point by the analogy I was using: people feel free to assume the worst about the entire Muslim religion based on the actions of a few extremists, but somehow feel as though the ever-pristine reputation of Christianity could never ever be “tainted” by the actions of extremists within that group.

The response I received: Don’t sink to their level.

overgeneralizationI was told that over-generalizations are always harmful. “If you retaliate by doing the same thing to them that they do to you, then you are no better than they are!  Rise above it!”

It sounds like great advice.

However, as nice as it sounds, I don’t really feel that this argument is entirely correct… and for the last several days I have been struggling to understand why.

First, let’s talk about why the advice to “rise above it” feels so virtuous. When someone makes an over-generalization about you, and you turn around and make an over-generalization about them, your motivation automatically seems suspect.  It seems like an emotional retaliation. It seems mean. On some level, it feels like the school-yard tactic of saying “I hit him because he hit me first!” And to anyone who wants to think of himself as a righteous or moral person,  that is quite simply not a very good reason for doing something.

And if I thought that that was all there was to it–if I thought that my tweets about Christians were nothing more than a case of reciprocal douche-baggery–then I’d have to agree with the criticisms. That’s not a very good motivation. Simply lashing out in anger is never helpful.

But in my heart of hearts, I don’t feel like that is what I was doing.

The difference is in both awareness and intent. Never in a million years did I expect someone in my “audience” to read what I wrote and think, “Wow, you know what? All Christians really are evil maniacal terrorists!” Moreover, I was actually surprised to find that some people thought that I actually believed that. I assumed that it was self-evident that I was aware that I was over-generalizing.

Was I wrong to assume that?

Not completely, no.  For the most part, our culture simply isn’t wired for a face-value reading of those types of statements. Maybe if we lived in a completely abstract, a-historical, culturally-neutral environment, my statement about Christians might be interpreted as a face-value condemnation of all Christians.  In a neutral environment like that, maybe my statements about Christians would be interpreted in exactly the same way as the parallel statements that are often made about Muslims. But that’s not the world that we live in.

This is the kind of nuance that many conservatives have so much difficulty with. They want to pretend that we live in an a-historical, culture-free universe where it’s just as bad for a black person to say “nigger” as a white person, and it’s just as bad for a woman to call a man a “whore” as the other way around. In that universe, making a generalization about Christians would be “just as bad” as making a generalization about Muslims. But that’s not the universe we live in, and those things are not the same.

We live in a society where the assumption of Christianity as the default religion is so deeply entrenched that it is barely even recognized. Even when we talk about trying to put limits on the influence of religion in our government, we talk about the separation of church and state… even though it’s only Christians who, in fact, call their place of worship a “church.”

Because of the history and cultural assumptions in our society, not all generalizations are created equal. They are not experienced as equal, psychologically, in the minds of people who hear them. When someone says, “Muslims blew up a building” it is automatically read, by many people in our culture, as a statement about all Muslims; when someone says “Christians blew up a building”… the very idea that it could be understood as a statement about all Christians is automatically dismissed. An implicit assumption is made: This person is making an over-generalization, and they know they are making an over-generalization, and they probably have some kind of motivation for doing so.

This cultural context places radical and negative over-generalizations about majority groups in a special category: they tend to be interpreted as ironic, or at least self-aware. When someone says “All white people are idiots” it is immediately tagged, in the minds of most listeners, as an over-generalization. In most contexts, people will assume that the speaker realizes it is an over-generalization. They will then go on and “read in” to the statement, asking themselves: Why would the speaker make that over-generalization? Was it to make people angry? Was it to make a political point? What was the motivation?

Now, of course this isn’t true in every single case or for every single person. I’m sure you can come up with a million “what if’s” and examples of scenarios where people might react differently. But I am convinced that in our broader culture today, an over-generalization about a majority group (e.g. Christians, white people, etc) triggers the “that person seems to be deliberately over-generalizing!” thought more often than an over-generalization about a minority group does.

Not all over-generalizations are created equal. Some are intended to be ironic, but even beyond the simple matter of intent: because of the assumptions of our culture, some are heard as being ironic and intentional, rather than being taken at face-value.

Does that mean it’s a good tactic to use in a debate? Not necessarily. I know plenty of people who think that irony and sarcasm aren’t particularly helpful in any conversation.

But it does mean one thing: When someone makes an over-generalization about Christians that is an overt over-generalization, it’s not “the same thing as” someone who makes an over-generalization about Muslims that is intended to be taken at face-value.  It is not “sinking to their level” and it is not a simple “eye for an eye” kind of retaliation.

That criticism–that all over-generalizations are equally bad–is simply an over-generalization.