Friday, May 18, 2007

Specifics and Generalities

Some wise wag (I think) once said something along the lines of "I love mankind. It's people I can't stand." I've been thinking about this ever since a woman in Los Angeles last week asked me an interesting question during a conversation about the different ways men and women approach things like work, work-life balance, one another, etc. She noted that in A Merger of Equals many of the female characters have pretty cynical attitudes toward men and the predominantly male institutions they work in, but that most of them nevertheless find great men along the way. Her question was: were the women's cynical assumptions about men unfounded or were the women just lucky? The question has stuck in my mind, and I've realized that my underlying belief about all this is sort of the opposite of the "I love mankind. It's people I can't stand" attitude.

The relationships between specifics and generalities intrigue me. I've always been amazed by how quickly the specific becomes the generic at work relative to out-of-the-mainstream people. One woman or person of color quits or doesn't do well in a traditionally white male work environment and the institutional powers that be very quickly start fretting about the commitment or suitability of every woman or person of color - a phenomenon that does not occur when an individual white male quits or doesn't do well. As a woman at work, I often felt like a representative of women, a flagbearer of sorts, and that was a heavy additional burden to shoulder. And like the aphorism, while I wholeheartedly believed (and believe) in the rights and abilities of women as a group, I, like everyone else, came across a few individual women I had to grit my teeth to support.

But it goes the other way, too. There are certainly jerks and assholes among the male population, in fact and in my book. And a male-tinged inhospitability certainly pervades a lot of traditionally male work institutions.
As a group, particularly at work, men can seem deserving of the cynical and distrustful attitudes that women trying to succeed often have of them. But my experience with individual men, like that of my fictional characters, has been overwhelmingly good. As individuals, most men are decent human beings, and many of them are great. Just like women. So I guess my female characters are both right and wrong to start off (and, in some cases, continue) with such cynical attitudes. And a better answer to the interesting question than the one I gave last week is that you'll get farther with a trusting attitude, hedged by whatever private skepticism suits you, than you will with a cynical and distrusting attitude. Mankind in general may or may not deserve cynicism, but individual people generally do not.

No comments: