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Wheaton Kosher Pt 1: “Everybody blah blah blah….”

September 15, 2012

The tendency for any institution or movement is to get caught up in its own set of cliches, conventions or self-induced stereotypes. This is a temptation for any individual. A desire for communal holiness changes into an expansion of legalism, the pursuit of health degenerates into an idolatry of “proper” food and excercise, and Artistic community transmogrifies into hipster conformity. No one is exempt from this temptation. It is easy to fall into bad patterns–keeping with the good ones is hard. The struggle in life is not to not conform–we should be postmodern enough to realize that absolute nonconformity is a pipe dream. The struggle in life is to conform to the right things and not conform to the wrong things.

In any institution/movement/group, there is a danger of the members of the group thinking that their membership in the group makes them automatically superior. St. Paul wrote “Careful ye who stand firm, lest ye fall,” and two-thousand or so years later, his advice still stands. Membership in a certain group, whether the overbearing, obviously right majority, or the 300 Spartans-esque righteous minority, makes you automatically virtuous and superior to the rest of mankind. This kind of thinking elevates faith over works–having the right opinions is more important than doing the right thing. Another danger that is faced is the danger of creating false enemies. Usually these enemies take the form of a vast conspiracy, an insidious and shadowy majority that functions as an intellectual Ra’s Al-Ghul. We see this in artistic communities that continually rail against the “domination” of the “establishment” (Usually Republicans) who hate the rebellious and transgressive artists, when in reality the artists all follow the same lockstep liberalism and most Republicans don’t give a care either way about their art. The same thing pops up in conservative circles where the media and the government are viewed as players in a vast conspiracy, usually orchestrated by Marxists, that has been designed to destroy America. The truth is that the media and the government are human institutions populated by flawed humans. Yes, some people in the media and the government are motivated by Marxist beliefs. Others are motivated by money, booze, women, and a desire to do a job that doesn’t involve digging ditches. Life does not always fit into easy categories. I do not mean to fall into the nominalist heresy and say that there are no categories. I just mean to say that some categories are simply categories, and should not be viewed as comprehensive or absolute.

It is with this in mind that I write on a way of thought that is pervasive on Wheaton’s campus. Perhaps it is prevalent on other campus’ also, although I have a feeling that on other colleges that attitude may have more of a connection with sports teams than on our campus. It is the attitude that expresses itself in phrases like “Everybody at Wheaton…” or “All [or most] girls at Wheaton…” I believe that this sort of thinking is not helpful, charitable or good.

Let us take the statement, “All these girls at Wheaton are so obsessed with finding a husband. They walk into Saga and they’re like, ‘Omigosh, my future husband could be in here.'” First we have to deal with the question of whether this is a hasty generalization. There is nothing wrong with generalizations per se, but we need to make sure that they are accurate. “Lots of hipsters wear beanies” is a helpful and warranted generalization; “All Mexicans aren’t smart” is a stupid generalization. It is important to take into account sample size, circumstances, and experience when making a generalization. Generalizing that all Mexican’s aren’t smart just because you met three Mexicans at a truck stop who couldn’t speak English is incredibly sloppy, not to mention venomous, thinking. Now back to the original sentence. [“All these girls at Wheaton….”] My second problem with this kind of statement is how it elevates the speaker. The purpose of saying this is to draw attention to how smart, hip, or holy the speaker is. There is a Cartesian ego peeking out from behind this sentence. The speaker is essentially saying “Most people are just sheep. I, on the other hand, am so smart that I don’t follow these trends. Well, why don’t you praise me?” This kind of sentence is the intellectual equivalent of shaking your own hand. “I am so smart and cool. If only I was two different people so I could date myself.”

A third problem with this statement, which is awkward to articulate, is the way it merely reduces people’s behavior to an action without context. In other words, the speaker makes no attempt to think about why the people she is condemning behave the way that they do. There is no sympathy extended to them, no desire to understand why they do the things they do. Let us take an example of this. Suppose someone says, in an unguarded moment, “Pretty much all black guys go around wearing gym shorts.” [1] This may or may not be true–certainly in my experience it is false, as African-Americans that I have seen demonstrate the same kind of diversity in legwear that any other races do. But the important thing about this statement is that the speaker is likely to simply toss it off without giving any serious thought to it. It’s typical of casual racism to toss off these sorts of statements without thinking about them. Maybe black guys do go around wearing gym shorts. But why they do is more important. Maybe they can’t afford khakis. Maybe racists stole all of their other clothes. Maybe gym shorts are just really comfortable. But the person who casually tosses off this statement doesn’t care to actually think about why things are the way they are. He just wants to show people his own superiority. Similarly, the people who complain about Wheaton behavior don’t usually show a lot of initiative in trying to understand how that behavior came about and sympathizing with the ones who participate in it. They just criticize it without context.

Having looked at the abstract features of the statement  “All these girls at Wheaton are so obsessed with finding a husband. They walk into Saga and they’re like, ‘Omigosh, my future husband could be in here.,” I will now delve into the particulars. The statement reeks of cynicism about relations between men and women. It seems to presuppose a view in which finding a soulmate is an occupation for sissies and losers, something that “real people” don’t think about. To answer the perennial question of “Is This Biblical?”, the answer is a resounding “No!” The Bible says, “He who finds a wife finds a good thing,” and the same could be said about a husband. There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to find love and companionship. Certainly it can be taken to unbiblical and unhealthy extremes, but so can anything. Is there something really wrong or sinful about wanting to find a husband? Is hoping that you meet your future spouse in college a want of conformity unto or transgression of the law of God?

Even without taking into consideration explicitly religious thought, the statement is still incredibly cynical. The girls walking into Saga and thinking that they might find a husband at least have a sense of adventure. They view the world from the eyes of a child. For the reductionist cynic, walking into Saga is just a mundane, repetitive activity. For the innocent, walking into Saga is literally walking into a Saga. You do not know what you will find there. The innocent is convinced of the goodness and desirability of the world; the cynic is convinced of the goodness of no-one but himself.

In the end, harping on “what everyone else here at Wheaton [or any other place for that matter],” does little but inflate our own egos. The people who make these statements about others do not want the others to change. If the others changed, if the girls at Wheaton became less interested in finding a husband, the “everybody else” crown would no longer have anything to complain about. Instead of floating above everyone else like a secular saint, they would be as normal and humdrum as the rest of them. The complainers don’t want everyone else to do the right thing, they just want to complain. This is why I think we should avoid making these statements that begin with “Everyone here at Wheaton…” In the end, we will not be judged by what everyone else does, but by what we do.

[1]. I deliberately use a racial example, not to be controversial (though I’m sure that is part of it), but because I feel like our thinking about racial/ethnic stereotypes is often very simplified. I feel like we often simply dismiss racial stereotypes as “bad” or “racist” without trying to think about how they came about and what they mean. This is not to say that stereotypes are good or acceptable, simply that we need to think seriously about them before we condemn them. (That is, think seriously about them, then condemn them.) We need to know our enemy. It is not enough to say that the Nazis are wrong because they are wrong; we need to show why they are wrong. The same thing goes with stereotypes. We need to show stereotypers the flaws in their own own thinking rather than just heavy-handedly condemning them as stereotypers.

Stereotypes themselves are a distortion of reality, a bad generalization run amok or causality gone wild. They are based on the fallacious idea that because a certain amount of people in group X are a certain way, then the rest of the people will be that way too. Of course, this is not at all realistic. Just because 99 black people behave in a certain way is no guarantee that  the 100th black guy will behave in a certain way. Stereotypes try to mold everyone into a simple pattern that does not jive with reality.

I believe that the Christian answer to racial stereotypes should be something along the lines of “so what?” Even if all black people were pants-sagging gangstas, all Hispanics were meth-dealing illegal immigrants, all Koreans were heartless number-crunchers, all Jews were greedy Scrooges (or Stooges), and all Anglos were Coldplay fans who enjoy enslaving people of other races, Christ’s commands to love our neighbors as ourselves, to love our enemies, to do unto others as we would have them do to us, and to spread the Gospel would still apply. People don’t bring up racial stereotypes because they have a genuine concern for the flaws of others–they do it to show how good they are. The next time some Christian casually tosses out some racial stereotype (usually along the lines of “blah blah blah black people blah blah blah”) , say something like “yeah, well what are you doing about it?” Don’t condemn them–expose their faulty thinking. Of course, one of the ways that stereotyping goes against Christian thought is the way that is precludes the possibility of saints–people who transcend their culture/race/environment in their love for God. As Thomas More said, “The times are never so bad that a good man cannot live in them.”

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One Comment leave one →
  1. September 17, 2012 11:32 am

    This is not an exclusive Wheaton phenom. Maybe it is exclusive to Christian colleges, but I doubt it. At Ouachita, religion majors (mostly male) would start a date with “I’m not looking for a wife” to which my response was usually “Thank goodness; I’m not looking for a husband”, which begs the question “Why are you dating?” That aside, it was commonly thought that girls just came to college to get a good husband, and what would be better than a guy from the religion dept. It was comical to me then and even more so now.
    Thanks for the refresher course on campus life and for the thinking side of blanket statements.

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