Black Holes and Mars and Venus

If you came to this post because the title led you to think this would be something cool about science by Steve P., you are out of luck.  Instead, it is a riff on John Crawford’s post from last week entitled The Black Hole. Crawford explains convincingly how our tendency to just throw up our hands when it comes to understanding male sexuality is unproductive. We apparently are content to stumble along thinking that every single man on earth is just a hunka hunka burnin’ lust, so what are ya gonna do about it?  It’s really no mystery why we continue to struggle with the same problems over and over, with no measurable progress.

The tendency to treat people as groups rather than as individuals is understandable and sometimes even necessary.  But I think there is often a very high cost, especially when we assign to the entire group the worst traits that we can observe in any individual member of the group.  Everybody understands how destructive racial stereotyping can be, so it is unsettling to see how comfortable we are with other stereotypical black holes.  In addition to the Hulk stereotype of male sexuality, here are some others you might have heard about:

  • Women.  You can’t live with them, and you can’t live without them.  They are hormonal, incomprehensible bundles of irrational emotion who yak too much and who cannot do algebra.
  • Teenagers.  It’s best to just ignore them, since they are just sullen, ungrateful, moody acne farms who we hope will snap out of it when they walk through the front door of the MTC.
  • Other Christians.  Everybody knows that they show The Godmakers every Sunday, unless they’ve already scheduled a presentation by somebody who thinks Jesus co-existed with Tyrannosaurus Rex. 

In my experience, when I see just a member of a group instead of a person, I miss out on most of the interesting things about that person.  And when that person is someone close to me, like a family member or neighbor, I am failing to love them as I should, and as I want to.  Black holes are barriers to love and empathy.  After all, that 18 year old hunka hunka burnin’ lust surfing on a tsunami of testosterone and the hormonal, irrational woman who feels like killing somebody because of PMS have a lot in common.  They are both experiencing the way our bodies and brain chemistry can tempt us to sub-optimal behavior.  We really are not that different.


  1. MikeInWeHo says:

    Do you think being a part of a religious subculture so oriented toward orthopraxy contributes to the tendency to stereotype people in the groups you describe? I mean after all, as a faithful Latter-day Saint there really IS one correct way to be a man (or a woman), right?

  2. Mark Brown says:

    Mike, stay tuned!

  3. Mike,
    I think its an often-unfortunate part of the human experience to stereotype large groups, but I don’t know that members of the church do it more than other groups of people, orthopraxic or not. In the insular world of academics I inhabit, I know that there’s a similar stereotyping of Fox News types. It’s a stereotype I largely, but not entirely, agree with–in broad strokes, it’s probably right, but I personally know (and, in fact, have family members who are) Fox-watchers, whereas many of my colleagues appear not to know any.

    And, because most of my colleagues are tenured, I don’t think you can really argue any hard obligation any of them have toward toeing a party line.

  4. But Mark, how am I supposed to treat people if they don’t fit the neat little boxes I’ve built for them?

    On the other hand, I like to revel in my differences with the preconceived notions of homogeneity that others try and impose on me. It seems we like to celebrate our own differences, while ascribing to others higher levels of sameness than we exhibit ourselves. And I don’t think that is unique to us in the LDS culture. It is just the easy way out (ie, natural man) to classify people by groups. It relieves us of the responsibility of dealing with them as individuals, which takes more work.

  5. #1-2: Of course stereotyping the general populace of Mormonism as thinking these things is equally unproductive.

  6. Stereotyping is inevitable. We don’t have the mental capacity to genuinely get to know everyone as individuals and it saves us a lot of time if we can make some judgments about others based on visual or social cues. That said, we shouldn’t be inflexible in our stereotyping, because our stereotypes are often very, very wrong or, even worse, just wrong enough.

  7. MikeInWeHo says:

    Oops, I thought my first comment didn’t go through and now there are two. Can the admin please delete #1? Thanks!!!

  8. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 4
    “In the insular world of academics I inhabit, I know that there’s a similar stereotyping of Fox News types. ”

    Yes, that’s my point exactly! Believe me, there are plenty of entrenched, false stereotypes of Mormons that people here in West Hollywood hold.

  9. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 6
    I’m not stereotyping Mormons at all in my comment. On the contrary. I’m part of a subculture that is also highly conformist (anybody here ever walked around WeHo and noticed what all the men look like????), and prone to stereotype outsiders (especially Mormons, post prop-8). I totally get how this can happen, but am more interested in why it happens.

  10. Nor was I accusing you of stereotyping, Mike. Rather I was saying that we seem to stereotype because really getting to know people is an awful lot of trouble and stereotypes are useful shorthand that can replace interpersonal relationships in a pinch. However, if the stereotype is as far as one ever goes, one doesn’t get to claim that one understands another.

  11. “anybody here ever walked around WeHo and noticed what all the men look like????”

    No, but what a great idea for Saturday night!

  12. I can’t do algebra when I have PMS.

  13. Mark Brown says:

    Me neither.

  14. It’s not just that “really getting to know people is an awful lot of trouble”. It’s that you cannot really get to know even a significant fraction of the people that you interact with on a regular basis. Much less deal with all the ‘other’ people around the city / state / country/ world. Stereotyping enables you to get to know new people faster by associating them with people you may have known in the past. IMHO, the trouble appears when you either [ A ] do not allow individuals to break your assumptions about them as you do get to know them better; or [ B ] you flat out refuse to acknowledge that you are using stereotypes are treat those assumptions as “truth”.

    Some stereotypes are more useful (predictive) than others. Gender, for example. Others are less so. i.e. Which alma mater you graduated from.

  15. StillConfused says:

    I do find the stereotypes interesting. I am female and kick a$$ in all mathematics; I don’t do PMS; I am all about logic etc.

    I also have the misfortune of being unmarried at the current time (only misfortunate because I decided to date). I had two dates last week. The first man was sooo stereotypical. He said he was an artist and just wanted to admire my body for artistic purposes. When I resisted his advances, he told me to just pretend I was in a play. He claimed to be 52 but was clearly over 60. He was (sort of) LDS. Creepiest experience ever. The second man was late 40s, professional, polite and respectful, we had a great conversation and all went well. So my little micro test here shows that 50% of men are the creepy kind. Not enough to warrant a stereotype in my opinion.

  16. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 11
    Can’t this weekend ‘cuz I’ll be in Palm Springs but anybody who wants a tour of Anti-Provo some weekend evening is welcome to contact me. But I digress.

    re: 14
    I think it’s sad to use stereotypes as a way to pre-screen people with whom we want to associate or befriend. If I did that, I wouldn’t have several wonderful conservative friends, Mormon friends, etc. Heck, the reason I started commenting in the Bloggernacle several years ago was because it became clear to me that many Mormons simply have no gay friends, and I thought that was unfortunate.

  17. I think you may have misunderstood me. I am in no way making the argument that we should allow stereotypes to interfere with actually getting know new people. In fact, that’s a pretty sorry way for the two problems of stereotyping to creep into life and cause problems.

    But when you *do* come into contact with someone new, you have to make a set of assumptions about them, guessing by relying on past experience. The more you get to know them individually, the less you need that tool and the more you can rely on more specific and useful experience.

  18. Stereotypes are simple mental shortcuts that we all use in order to quickly observe the world around us and make snap judgments. Our ancestors made good use of stereotypes in what used to be life-and-death situations.

    For example, we, as a society, stereotype tigers. Tigers are mean, nasty, and have a troublesome habit of slashing us to bits when they want to. This is because when we encounter a tiger, our human biological processes don’t think it’s necessary to take the time to get to know this specific, individual tiger in case he’s actually different and docile, because if he isn’t, the consequences are not good.

    However, since (generally) talking to women or running into a group of teenagers roaming the halls in church won’t result in life-or-death situations, we can probably take the time to get to know them. On the same side of the coin, as a Korean, when I meet other Koreans, I usually have a mental template for them and I feel I can immediately know how to act around them. If they don’t happen to fit the template in some way, then I’m pleasantly surprised. If they do happen to fit the template pretty well, I saved a lot of time. As long as your stereotypes aren’t malicious, you’re probably okay.

    Good example of a stereotype: Teenagers are generally going through a complex and confusing period of their lives.

    Bad example of a stereotype: Don’t talk to teenagers because if you do they will become very snarky and probably text behind your back.

  19. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 17
    “But when you *do* come into contact with someone new, you have to make a set of assumptions about them….”

    I’m just not comfortable with that. It seems the exact opposite how how we see Jesus Christ behaving in the scriptures. Maybe we should resist the natural impulse to make assumptions about people?

  20. Mike, my uncle and his partner live in Long Beach, and so help me, next time I’m down to see them I’m calling you.

  21. I have found it interesting to note that in the Book of Mormon, virtually every time someone comes into personal contact with a flesh and blood Lamanite, they prove to be far more complex and far less stereotypical than the narrative brush that is used for their society at large.

  22. Jesus didn’t need to assume. We however see through a glass darkly. We make assumptions as part of our personal means of efficiency and self-preservation.

    When’s the last time you said hi to a man with a tatoo of a swastika on his face?

    Don’t get me wrong, I do think it is a shame I am so biased. (And I am very biased), I just don’t see an alternative. I will fear people who look scary to me, and I am not attracted to people I find ugly. As a scary looking ugly person myself, I know this is wrong, and can be hurtful, but I can’t see how we can say on the one hand we should follow our attractions and love the ones we are attracted to, but on the other hand deny ourselves the opposite from those we are not.

  23. David Wills says:

    When I read the title I thought it would be about black holes being perdition and Venus and Mars being terraformed into, respectively, the Terrestrial and Telestial Kingdoms. We all know that earth becomes the Celestial….

    OK, it’s a joke guys…


  24. Hello,

    I’d like to jump into this discussion, but before I do I would like to express my deep gratitude to all those involved in keeping this blog going. I may not be a member of the LDS church, but I am definitely a follower of Christ that believes the LDS has much to offer “mainstream” Christianity; and I believe this blog is one of those things.

    Anyway, on to my response:

    I think stereotypes are often reactions to people/things that we either fear or don’t understand, or both. By generalizing and keeping people/things at arms length we effectively create an “us vs them” dichotomy. In Evangelical Christianity, for example, I believe this is done in order to maintain a divider wall which somehow supports a perceived superiority. For example, shortly before I left my last church job my boss at the time went off about how “Mormons are all like XYZ” and “Catholics, oh, they are so XYZ.” His conclusion, based on his stereotypes, was that they were all going to hell.

    The reason for maintaining these stereotypes/generalizations is that they keep us safe in our false superiority, because when we really get to know the individual people we realize that, as Mark Brown said, “we really are not that different.”

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