Generalizations (& Those Who Criticize Them)

“That’s the worst of girls,” said Edmund to Peter and the Dwarf. “They never can carry a map in their heads.”

“That’s because our heads have something inside them,” said Lucy. (C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian).

It seems that if an author wishes to alienate vast swaths of readers today, they need do no more than “generalize.” Thus, C.S. Lewis has received unjust criticism due to some passages such as this.

To make a judgment such as Edmund’s leaves unmentioned the implied fact that there are, indeed, many useful things that are manifestly present in the heads of girls. But this example of difficulty in reading maps refers to a common perception . . . and if you’ve never heard it voiced before you read it here, you have led a shockingly sheltered life.

No one believes that there are no women capable of defeating even well-trained men in rigorous navigational competitions. Likewise, I have no doubt there are many gifted female cartographers. But please reseal the tar barrel and restuff the pillows; Lewis’ use of this dialog is not intended to be offensive!

I long for the days when a reader gave the writer the proverbial “benefit of the doubt.” A time when our assumption was that they meant something other than the meaning which offended us . . . or, at least, that they intended no malice.

I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but in most of the United States, such days of literary curtesy are long behind us. Today we often read things with an eye to finding the “problem” (ignorance, prejudice, or political viewpoint foreign to our own).

My wife and I attempted to raise our children with critical minds. (Critical in the best sense of the word.) We taught them that there are absolute truths. We informed them that, while people are entitled to hold to all sorts of notions and beliefs, that fact does not make the contending concepts “true.”

At the same time, we did our best to teach our children to respect others. To recognize that all human beings are created in the image of God. To understand that not even the basest man or woman is beyond redemption and restoration.

One practical element of this education in basic virtues took the shape of an adage we taught our kids. I’m sure others have advised this throughout history, and that many have voiced it far more eloquently, but we simply said: Judge everyone and everything by their best cases, rather than their worst.

In practice, this would mean that when a teenager compliments his dad on his wisdom, the dad does not immediately assume his prodigy is attempting to manipulate him. Now, further conversation and “investigation” may certainly prove that manipulation is indeed the goal, but it should not be the very first suspicion of the father.

As a pastor, one of your greatest challenges (and joys) comes in the pulpit. One major difficulty is discussing some extremely complex subjects in a relatively brief period of time. Pastors sometimes lapse into a sort of theological shorthand—which can be confusing or troubling to those unfamiliar with the underlying presuppositions. Taken out of context, individual statements may sound strange, or even heterodox.

I have always encouraged the members of my congregations and (especially) visitors to specifically ask me about what was meant by any statement or phrase that left them uneasy. It is no exaggeration to say that 98% of the time, that has cleared the air in and of itself, as I’ve had an opportunity to elaborate and clarify. (Of course, the other 2% of the occasions constitute a second pastoral “joy.”)

It saddens me when I hear people berate C.S. Lewis for a handful of passages that critics deem to be misogynistic or racist. They fail to extend toward him the goodwill he strove to offer to others. Most of these very few passages can simply be explained by the age in which he lived. It is disingenuous to judge by today’s standards someone who died a half century ago.

Like Lewis’ peers (and, in fact, all human beings), on occasion Lewis himself generalized. Let those who have never done the same cast the first stone. I confess that I’m guilty of it. In fact, returning to the quotation with which we began, I could most definitely echo Edmund’s words in reference to my wife. Ironically, they would be utterly inaccurate in reference to my daughter. For many years she was my “official navigator” as our family often drove across country (relying upon those seven foot by seven foot paper maps that are nearly impossible to refold.)

So, in my own nuclear family I’m batting .500 in terms of the accuracy of this generalization. The next generation may decide. Four of my six grandchildren are girls, and since the oldest girl just turned five, it’s about time to set them out in the woods with a map and a compass to see how they do!

15 thoughts on “Generalizations (& Those Who Criticize Them)

  1. Even Neil Gaiman has misinterpreted Lewis, I think, though he acknowledges him as a great writer and positive influence. Gaiman’s short story “The Problem with Susan” is a pretty nasty, ungenerous attack on what he perceives as Lewis’ anti-feminist mistreatment of Susan. The example you quote with Edmund and Lucy actually seems to me like a reverse off a misogynist generalization: Lewis clearly lets Lucy get in the jab that women have brains and men don’t. Not that I blame Lewis for this — he’s clearly just having fun with his characters, and those are things the characters would say. Lewis isn’t generalizing, the characters are. If one wants to know what Lewis thinks of women, just look at the female characters he writes. Not a single weak, stupid character in the bunch, although they (and the males) have an abundance of human flaws that we all can relate to. ‘Cept maybe Lucy. She’s pretty magnificent.

    1. You took the words right out of my mind (save for the Gaiman reference) and made more of them than I can at present.
      People seem quick to judge the works of those who disagree with them. Christians do this do… I catch myself doing this sometimes, though I try not to. But it seems particularly fashionable to attack Lewis right now, and I think, unfairly so.

  2. Giving someone/something the “benefit of the doubt” – that used to be normal.(and things seemed to work better)
    I agree with David’s comments. Writers have characters do things for a purpose.
    You are so right that it’s better to view author’s works within the framework of their times, – during certain eras, authors had to carefully speak their messages. (and their world was very different from our – so why should their writings be judged by today’s standards? A solid knowledge of history helps understand writings from different times.)
    I’m going to risk a generalization: always thoughtful posts here.

    1. Alas, my friend, without generalizations, life itself would be impossible! (Based on an old Monsanto slogan deeply imbedded in my brain: “without chemicals…”) And speaking of such matters, your own posts are always erudite and entertaining.

  3. The Flood Behind

    pretty sure Lewis’s “generalization” can be supported scientifically. i’m no anthropologist or biologist, but my intuition suggests that because men hunted and women gathered in primordial societies, men are as a matter of course more inclined toward navigation on an evolutionary level.

    i am someone who is very disturbed by our culture’s increasing penchant for secularity/political correctness/etc. good to see there are other intelligent folk out there who feel similarly.

    1. Actually, I know that such studies have been conducted. My wife and I listened to an extensive report while driving cross country that compared two things. The first was reading a map, at which men excelled. The second was recalling the spatial correlations of the items in a refrigerator. Women excelled at being able to recall how things were arranged in context with one another. In their analysis they discussed the evolutionary factor you refer to. I would not be surprised to learn that even over the period of a few generations God enables the human brain to adapt . . . for example, a family which emphasizes mathematics in early and thorough instruction could probably “improve” those respective portions of the brain over time. Hmmm… wonder if I could get some federal funding for that..?

      1. I stand with “A Flood Behind” but also not, in a sense. I hope we can recognize the physiological diversity of human for our own social benefit. I think the politically correct gatekeepers are really just goofy. For example, there is physiological evidence little boys and girls learn differently, but some block that conversation in principle. Dumb.
        however, I am anxious about North American expression (particular in traditionalists, Catholics, evangelicals, etc.) that apply such specific traits to men and women. I’ve lived in other cultures, and have studied history, and manliness/femininity is pretty broad. For example, Pastor Mark Noll is a creative church leader in Seattle. But he has tied Christianity so directly in men’s spiritual growth to Ra! Ra! manliness guy sweat activities. What that does is seal in American culture and make it = to biblical spirituality. That concerns me too.

    2. Too much rigidity in any system (including the raising of our children) can be dangerous. Just like the opposite end of the spectrum where parents set no boundaries at all.

      Likewise linking Christianity too closely to any particular national or ethnic expression. Definitely hazardous grounds!

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