I suppose we all tend to generalize (and yes, I recognize that this is itself a generalization.) Generalizations make life simpler and they make organizing our ideas and our worlds simpler, too.
The law employs generalizations, too, and for some of the same reasons. The law says that people under 18 cannot vote. That’s not because every single person under 21 will be an irresponsible voter. We know that some 17 3/4 year olds would be more educated and responsible voters than some 25 year olds, but it is too hard to sort it all out and so we generalize.
But generalizations may also be dangerous. I think there are two dangers. First, I think that sometimes generalizations encourage a certain kind of intellectual laziness. There can be something comfortable about them so that the substitute for more careful rational analysis.
More importantly, generalizations can lead us to support rules that will apply to everyone–everyone including those who do not fit within the generalization. Maybe that isn’t always a terrible thing–so some mature 17 3/4 year olds don’t get to vote. But I think it can be very problematic in family law.
I’ve been thinking about this because I think generalizations have cropped up a lot on the blog. Things like “all children need a mother and a father” or “all children need a relationship with the people who provided the egg and sperm from which they were created.” (I pick these because I’ve seen them recently, but there are many other instances and I’m sure I’ve done it myself.)
What worries me is that even if I agree with the particular generalization (and in these specific instances I do not) I think we have to acknowledge that there are, in fact, exception. There are children who are perfectly happy, well-adjusted, however-else-we-measure-successful children of single-mothers. Or children of two mothers. Or, as it appears to me in my most recent, children of two fathers.
I’m concerned that generalizations will end up hurting the exceptional children. First, they invalidate the child’s experience. Just as having all the picture books have pictures only of mothers with children undermines the ability of fathers to function, so telling children that their families are defective or lacking will take its toll. This isn’t a small problem. Literally millions of children live in situations that do not fit comfortably within the generalizations.
Second, guided by generalizations we may take or endorse actions which do real violence to the lives of children who do not fit the generalization. Frankly, I’m frightened at the prospect that someone might conclude that Eli (the boy in the last post) should only have a legally protected relationship with at most one of the two men he thinks of as his parents, that one to be determined by genetic testing. Even if the generalization were perfectly correct, he deserves to be treated as an individual. The idea that we might ignore his particular needs because, generally speaking, other children won’t share them isn’t acceptable to me.
I understand that to some people a family consisting of two men and a child (and perhaps one of the men’s mother’s) is incomprehensible or worse. Yet it exists. Perhaps my greatest worry about generalizations is that they will prevent us from seeing what actually exists.
This problem lies at the heart of a lot of family law tangles. We might assume or decree that certain things will be certain ways, but people persist in acting in ways that are inconsistent with our pronouncements. Their actions create lived realities and then family law has to deal with them. I suspect it is rarely better to deny the individual reality in favor of the generalization, but that sure does make it hard to establish laws.
One closing note: You can take most generalizations and offer pretty much the same statement as a policy prescription or an opinion: ” All children should have a mother and a father.” If I read that as a statement of opinion, we could have a discussion starting from that. What makes a generalization problematic (at least in my view) is that it seems to be a statement of fact. “All children need a mother and a father.”