Who gets to say what? Under what circumstances? When are opinions warranted? When should we keep our mouths shut? Does being right matter? Is the relationship between parent and child more cogent than knowledge and authority?
I got well-deserved pushback on two articles last month. I wrote about eating disorders to make a point; I may have been unintentionally insensitive. As a male who does not struggle with weight issues, how can I pretend to have any insight into those who do? I was accused of “fat shaming.” Thoughtful readers pointed out that I don’t have the standing to have an opinion about folks with eating issues. I learned a lot. I won’t make the same mistake again.
In my defense, I was trying to communicate about the trauma parents pass on to children and did not mean to suggest that obesity is a moral flaw. But I will be more circumspect in future.
I pride myself on being aware that no one chooses to learn differently and have written for years about how children get into a bad place when “can't” is mistaken for “won’t.” “Won’t” can quickly morph into a life of its own as children act out because they would rather be incorrigible than incompetent. No child wakes up in the morning and decides, Hey, I have an idea: I’ll pretend not to be able to distinguish a “d” from a “b.” To the contrary, reading disabilities are real.
I feel strongly that I have the standing to talk about children who learn differently because I was one. My education was stained by a series of well-meaning but brutally oblivious teachers. He’s so smart. If he would only do his homework. He knows the material, why won’t he perform on tests? He’s lazy, unmotivated. He would do well if only he would try. These words still sting half a century later.
I applaud my colleagues who have improved the vocabulary of our profession. We now speak of “learning differences” rather than “learning disabilities” a significant improvement over “minimal brain dysfunction” of a generation ago. Or my teachers who accused me of being lazy so often that I internalized their insight and carried it with me for decades.
What about health care professionals? Surely, a doctor has the standing to suggest that ingesting a daily handful of opioids will have long range negative health consequences. But the best doctors do not insult their patients suffering from substance use disorder; doctors should understand craving; doctors should be sensitive to the path the patients walk and the brutal physiological and psychological costs of overcoming chemical dependency. Still, the doctors themselves do not have to have overcome addiction to be able to describe the health consequences.
Who gets to have an opinion? Gerhard Casper, was the president of Stanford University when he used the word “standing” in an oft-quoted article. I have added my voice to the overwhelming disregard for the rankings of colleges as if the institutions were three-year-old thoroughbreds being evaluated over ten furlongs.
“I hope I have the standing to persuade you that much about these rankings—particularly their specious formulas and spurious precision—is utterly misleading.”
What brilliant understatement! Of course, a college president has the standing to disparage silly rankings. Who knows more about a college than the president? College presidents are top of the food chain in our culture, earn a million dollars a year. (That top college football coaches earn over five million dollars a year is the subject for another column.) Gerhard Casper pointed that ranking colleges in magazines is a way for magazines to sell copies.
College presidents do indeed have the standing to talk about colleges. Do loving fathers have something to say about how their 14-year-old daughters dress?
My friends and I look at you with love, dad begins. But you may not be communicating what you wish to in the broader culture. Cover up, would you, please?
It’s my body, the daughter responds. I can dress how I like. I want to be comfortable; what people think is not my problem. Creepy men just have to deal with it.
This author has no opinion on the above father-daughter exchange. I am only posing the question: does dad have the standing to have an opinion about what his daughter wears? Does a 14-year-old have the authority and autonomy to choose her outfits?
My only insight revolves—as always—around the relationship between parent and child. The answer may lie not in what is said but how. Even a stray dog knows whether she has been tripped over or kicked. Kids intuit the why of parental advice. I want my child to perform up to her capability in school so that I can bathe in reflected glory and brag about what a good parent I am is different from I want my child to do well in school so that she can have a productive and independent future. Kids know where their parents are coming from. (I want my child to learn a lot because reading and thinking have brought pleasure to humans for millennia might be a bridge too far.)
I am eager to hear your insights into who has the standing to give advice. University presidents, doctors, educational consultants, loving fathers--what do we get to have opinions about, how are we supposed to share our insights, how do we help those we care about be open to our understanding?