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Assumptions of Ignorance

Freedom Requires Wings | by on




I’ve noticed over the past couple of years that society has an annoying tendency to assume that if you don’t have personal experience with something, you couldn’t possibly understand it. Parents assume that people who don’t have kids couldn’t possibly have any understanding of what it’s like to be a parent, of how to parent, or of anything remotely related to parenting. People in all sorts of professional fields assume that people outside of that field couldn’t possibly understand any of the terminology or concepts that they work with on a daily basis. People in relationships assume that people who are single and especially those who have never been in a relationship couldn’t possibly understand the nuances and dynamics of being in a relationship. And people who have sex assume that people who don’t have sex, and especially those who have never had sex couldn’t possibly understand the new complexities and different dynamic that sex adds to a relationship. (I want to pause here and just note that I realize all of these statements are generalizations. Obviously, not EVERY person in these situations makes these assumptions or acts in this way. I’m simply commenting on a general phenomenon that I’ve observed, and in no way intend to target or offend anyone reading this who may belong to one of the groups of people I’ve mentioned!)

Last year, I was at my parents’ house for the holidays, and they hosted a party for a bunch of their friends. At one point during the party, I found myself standing in the kitchen, talking to two women of my mom’s generation. One is the mother of one of my best friends, who I’ve known since I was three years old, and feel pretty comfortable with. The other is the mother of one of my sister’s good friends, who I’ve met many times over the past 10-15 years, but don’t feel like I know very well. They were asking me about my life, and each took turns talking about their own children and their lives. They both happen to have children in the LGBTQ community. One has a son who is gay, and the other has both a daughter who is lesbian and a son who is (F to M) transgender. As I am closer with their kids than I am with them (being of their kids’ generation), I had heard about some negative reactions and interactions they had each had with their kids at one point or another. Somehow the conversation turned onto sexuality, and my friend’s mom asked me when my friend had come out to me. I told her it was when we were in college, and she then asked me if I had known that my friend was gay before she told me. I said that I honestly had never really thought about it (which was true), so I didn’t feel I could really answer the question. The conversation continued on, and these two women were commiserating over how difficult it was when their kids came out to them. I felt the strong need to defend my friends (and my sister’s friend!), so I very gently and diplomatically pointed out that coming out to one’s parents is a very stressful experience for the child, too, and that it had been just as difficult for their kids as it had been for them. My sister’s friend’s mom immediately responded that because I don’t have kids, I “don’t know what it’s like to be a parent, and how it feels when your dreams for your children’s lives are suddenly taken away.” At the time, I chose to respond to the latter part of her statement, and pointed out that in today’s world, their dreams hadn’t necessarily been “taken away”, their children could still fall in love, get married, have children, and lead very happy lives (which is supposed to be every parent’s dream, right?), which was not received particularly well by either of them, so the conversation ended on that awkward note.

I didn’t think of that conversation again until several months later, when I was talking to a friend of mine about some relationship issues she was having. She asked me for advice, and when I gave her my ideas on her situation, she sort of brushed it off, saying that I was “so lucky” that I’m asexual, because I never have to deal with the way that sex complicates things. The implication, of course, being that because I don’t have sex, I couldn’t understand the ways in which it affects and changes the dynamics of a relationship, and therefore my advice wasn’t really informed enough to be valid. The reality is that while I may not have personal experience with sex, I have observed enough from other people’s sexual relationships that I am very aware of the effects that sex can have on and in a relationship. In fact, I’ve been told by several friends that I happen to give very GOOD relationship advice, despite the fact that my own experience is quite different from theirs.

After reflecting on this for a while, I realized the connection between the assumption my friend had made and the one those two moms had made months earlier. In today’s world, we have nearly infinite resources at our fingertips, accessible in seconds via the internet. When I was a kid, I was fascinated by medicine (I wanted to be a doctor at that time), and I read tons of books on the subject. Because of this, I have more knowledge of medical terminology and concepts than the average lay person, even though I’ve never been to medical school or gotten a doctoral degree. By the same token, I like to believe that most people are capable of being sympathetic to the point where they can understand another’s experience without having gone through it themselves. To assume that just because someone hasn’t experienced something themselves, they couldn’t possibly understand it or have anything worthwhile to say on the subject is belittling, offensive, and just plain wrong (meaning both factually incorrect and morally offensive). It doesn’t reflect well on us as a society that this phenomenon is so prevalent. We can do better!
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