It appears that a recent column of mine had an effect similar to a Rorschach inkblot: people read their own personal experiences and/or biases into it and reacted to it from that perspective.
The column involved a question from the mother of a 19-year-old young woman whose 19-year-old boyfriend was, according to Mom, prone to sarcasm and put-downs. On the other hand, he was headed for college, didn’t smoke, drink, or do drugs, and had a coherent plan for his future.
I said that while his verbal habits were certainly not laudable, his plusses seemed to outweigh his negatives. I advised that this was an issue that the daughter needed to deal with on her own, without her parents’ intervention.
I unleashed a minor tsunami. To date, I’ve received about one hundred emails and letters from people who were aghast at my advice. To a person, they accused me of enabling the young man’s “verbal abuse.” More than one respondent suggested that perhaps I am a woman-hater (my wife of 43 years would not agree). Many of my critics, almost all female, said that the column raised ire because of their own experiences with abusive males. That’s the Rorschach ink blot aspect of this controversy.
It may be helpful for readers to know that I do not operate in a professional vacuum. Every column of mind is reviewed prior to publication by panel of people including another psychologist and a developmental/behavioral pediatrician. No one on my review panel questioned my advice to this mother. In addition, my column feeds to some 200 newspapers per week. None of those editors raised any red flags.
Nothing in the mother’s description suggested that the young man’s sarcasm rose to the level of “abuse.” One aspect of this problem is that just as our collective understanding of the word “trauma” has been dramatically dumbed-down over the past twenty or so years, so has our understanding of what constitutes genuine “verbal abuse.”
It was obvious that the young man thought his sarcasm was funny. In small, occasional doses, it may be. In large doses, and especially from the perspective of the young lady’s parents, it is not. But I failed to sense that he was mean-spirited, hateful, or possessed otherwise of a truly abusive attitude toward females.
The fact is that sarcasm is masquerading as humor in contemporary culture. One of the most popular sit-coms in re-run is “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Out of curiosity, I watched an episode. The script consisted of one insult after another, each accompanied by the laugh track. I had enough after about ten minutes and exercised my right to censorship. The program in question is by no means exceptional in this regard. From that perspective, it’s certainly understandable, albeit lamentable, that today’s young people think that put-downs and insults are the stuff of authentic humor.
But does this back-and-forth banter, as stupid and ill-mannered as it is, qualify as verbal abuse? I think not. It qualifies as evidence that American culture is on the skids. I even wondered if some of the same folks who blasted away at me for my advice might regularly watch and laugh at programs like “Everyone Loves Raymond.” It’s hardly inconceivable.
But when all is said and done, the bottom line is that the young lady in question is not a child. She is an adult. She can vote and get married without her parents’ permission. If the young man needs correction, she is the responsible party. Her parents can express their opinion, which they have, but they cannot solve this problem for her and shouldn’t make the attempt.