Here’s a generalization: biscuits and gravy are unhealthy. Few people would disagree with that proposition, but many would protest its inflexibility. “It depends on how many you eat,” they might say.
To my mind, there’s no such thing as too many biscuits and gravy. They are sweet ambrosia. Prometheus stole them, and the gods were angry. At least, that’s how my mind thinks of them, and so I have an impulse to protest the aforementioned generalization.
That impulse is a strange thing because it undermines my own best interest. There’s not a cell in my body that would wither away without biscuits and gravy, and they all would be better off with a carrot stick. Yet I’m compelled to argue, “It depends on how many you eat.”
Recently, I wrote a post at ironshink.com titled “Five Reasons Why Marijuana Is a Real Jerk Sometimes.” I made a sweeping but empirically-supported generalization that heavy recreational pot use is unhealthy.
As I wrote that piece, I was mindful of the fact that I was generalizing, and so I took a few small measures to illuminate the target of my generalization. For example, I used adjectives like “heavy” to describe the type of pot use that can be harmful.
But I intentionally omitted what has become the obligatory, pandering qualification: “Now please don’t misunderstand me, little ones, I’m not saying pot is always bad. It depends on how much you use.”
I omitted that because I’m weary of the apologies and groveling that we must append to any firm assertion. It seems there’s only one remaining generalization that won’t garner a stern correction from well-meaning thinkers: generalizations are bad, and people who generalize are generally narrow-minded.
Generalizations aren’t good or bad, they’re simply true or false. They are nothing more than propositions asserting uniformity among cases within a given circumstance.
It’s difficult to dispute the empirically-supported generalization that heavy pot use causes specific and easily quantified problems. Yet I’ve received predictable protests along the lines of my biscuits-and-gravy defense. Some of it has been rather testy.
Nowhere in my post did I suggest that marijuana is inherently bad, or that people are incapable of using it constructively. So why the reproachful reaction to an empirically-supported generalization?
Well, I can’t speak for the people who protested my generalization about pot, but I can speak about my own impulse to defend biscuits and gravy. It’s really nothing more than my mind’s attempt to sever the connection between behavior and consequences.
The thinking goes like this: If biscuits and gravy aren’t bad in all cases, then they must be OK in my case. Pretty clever, no?
My mind likes biscuits and gravy for important biological and evolutionary reasons. (I’ve written about that elsewhere.) It wants me to gorge on them, and it doesn’t care a whit about the long-term consequences. That’s normal, and so is the fact that my mind will concoct endless arguments to compel me toward its desire:
“Hey! Hey! You can’t generalize about biscuits and gravy! They aren’t inherently bad! Sure, maybe they’ve clogged some arteries and caused a few people to die of aneurisms while straining on the toilet. But you can’t indict the entire food group simply because a few people couldn’t manage their intake. So back off!”
I can’t blame that little part of my mind for trying to discount consequences and motivate me toward one of nature’s finest creations. But my mind doesn’t get to run the show.
I can choose to indulge occasionally, with mindful, conscious recognition that I’m making an unhealthy but tolerable choice. There’s no need for self-deception, and I do myself no favors by allowing my mind to convince me that biscuits and gravy come without consequences.
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Shawn Smith is a psychologist in Denver, Colorado. He is the author of The User’s Guide to the Human Mind and The Woman’s Guide to How Men Think.