Monday, July 3, 2017

Hasty Generalizations

Like Garrison Keillor, I am a lifelong member of the Professional Organization of English Majors.  I was blessed with extraordinary English teachers, starting at Gilmore Elementary School in fourth grade with Nora Gessner.  She had such a gift for reading aloud that whenever I re-read many of my childhood favorites today (Anne of Green Gables, The Hobbit), I still hear her expressively voicing each distinct character.  

When I was twelve, we moved from glorious Vancouver, Canada, to dreary Brigham City, Utah.  It ruined my life.  Five years later my parents came to their senses and moved back here to Bellingham, but the damage was already done.  One of the few bright spots in those wilderness years, however, was my good fortune in attending Box Elder High School together with an exceptional cohort of honors students and gifted educators.  Jordan Larsen (everyone called him “Jordie”) was a master English teacher.  To a fourteen-year-old sophomore, he seemed ancient – although in reading his obituary, I realized Jordie was exactly my current age when we first met.  (I also discovered he was a graduate of both South Cache High School and Utah State University, just like my father fifteen years later.)

Mr. Larsen (of course we didn’t call him “Jordie” to his face) was old school.  No one else in my academic career ever made me memorize passages of literature, a skill that proved useful later in theater, chorus, and public speaking.  I can still recite the first forty lines of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in Middle English.   (“Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote….”)



Like Mrs. Gessner, Jordie Larsen was also a gifted elocutionist.  Later I studied logic in both college and law school.  But what I remember best about the subject comes from Mr. Larsen reading aloud Max Schulman’s classic short story “Love is a Fallacy,” from The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.  It’s about a conceited first year law student teaching his bimbo girlfriend the most common fallacies of reasoning.   (Spoiler alert – he doesn’t get the girl in the end.)  For example:

“Next we take up a fallacy called Hasty Generalization.  Listen carefully:  You can’t speak French.  My roommate Petey can’t speak French.  I can’t speak French.  I must therefore conclude that nobody at the University of Minnesota can speak French.”

“Really?” said Polly, amazed.  Nobody?”

I hid my exasperation.  “Polly, it’s a fallacy.  The generalization is reached too hastily.  There are too few instances to support such a conclusion.”

“Know any more fallacies?” she asked breathlessly.  “This is more fun than dancing even.”

I will never forget the staid Jordie Larsen reciting Polly’s dialogue as if he were Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot.



My home library includes five shelves of LGBT books, culled from a quarter century as a professional and amateur homosexual.  One I have found particularly helpful is called …And Then I Became Gay:  Young Men’s Stories,by Ritch C. Savin-Williams, a psychology professor at Cornell.  He writes about what he calls “differential developmental trajectories,” and identifies several common patterns of how men “come out to themselves” in recognizing their sexual orientation.

I have listened to countless gay friends tell their stories.   Each individual’s coming out is unique.   But they usually fit into one of a handful of common basic narratives.  Many guys will say they “always knew.”  Conversely, others come out in midlife after marrying a woman and having a family.  Grade school and puberty are two other common inflection points. 
Some report they had a sudden epiphany, while others endure years of denial and repression.  Or cluelessness.  (We are the ones who are most likely to say “duh” afterwards.)  Some individuals describe sexuality as a spectrum, like the Kinsey scale, while most see their orientation as a dichotomy, like a light switch.  (“Turn it Off!” as they sing in The Book of Mormon.)  Similarly, there are those, less often men than women, who experience their sexuality as fluid.  But most describe the process as coming to recognize a fundamental and immutable truth about themselves. 

Like Polly, I am fascinated by Hasty Generalizations.  As with so many of life’s experiences, we assume – usually without realizing it – that everyone else came out in just the same way we did.  The “always knew” crowd insist everyone else is either lying or in denial.  The essentialists accuse the social constructionists of heresy, and vice versa.  Everyone bashes the bisexuals.  “Bi now, gay later” is a stage in one of those developmental trajectories that, while very common, nevertheless is hardly universal.  It certainly shouldn’t be used among ourselves as an epithet in cultural civil wars.   

Of course, projecting your own narrative onto everyone else is hardly a gay monopoly.  “Heterosexual privilege” is just one example of the various kinds of implicit bias that stack society’s deck against outsiders.  But unlike sexism or racism, heterosexism often denies the very existence of lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or trans people.  For example, the Mormon church refused to even use the words “gay” or “lesbian” for decades, instead insisting we were merely afflicted with “same sex attraction.”  Other homophobes deny they or anyone else has a sexual orientation at all, like fish unable to conceptualize the existence of both water and air.

We overcome bias by listening to others, and by being mindful of both similarities and differences.  And even when we land in what seems like the same place, it’s helpful and humbling to recognize the different trajectories that got us here.

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