I am currently a member of a parenting network online, in which members share stories and experiences and ask for parenting advice via email. I’ve learned some wonderful things from people in this community and I feel, without a doubt, that these are good, sincere, thoughtful and intelligent folks. I have really enjoyed learning from and getting know this lovely group.
That being said, I would like to share a brief exchange that occurred during an email ‘conversation’ between a few members of this online community, because I think it is an interesting example of the way people make decisions about what is true and false.
One person initiated this email conversation by mentioning a recent scientific study she’d read which looked at the differences between a large number people who were either breastfed or bottle-fed in infancy. The study measured differences in a wide variety of characteristics, such as intelligence, health, obesity in adulthood, among others. These characteristics were compared between breast- and bottle-fed children, both from different families, and within families (i.e. one sibling was breastfed and his/her sibling was bottle-fed). According to the brief summary this first person shared, the study seemed to say siblings fed with different methods showed no significant differences in health, intelligence and whatnot, although there were differences between children from different families, showing advantages for those who were breastfed.
Why might this be significant? Because it might mean breastfeeding is not be the sole cause of these advantages; instead, other factors like socio-economic status, wealth, education, culture, geographic location and ethnicity of parents may be the key. In other words, breastfeeding and better health or intelligence may be co-related, rather than breastfeeding being the direct cause of all of these benefits.
Now, I have yet to read the entire study, so this is just a summary of what I was told it was about. As a disclaimer: I am not making any claims whatsoever in this post about the pros/cons of breastfeeding vs bottlefeeding! I am not recommending you do one or the other. That is absolutely not the point of what I’m trying to say here!
So, what is my point then? I’m glad you asked!
I was actually more interested in the reaction I saw to the mere mention of this study’s findings, coming almost entirely from people who hadn’t even read it yet!
They made guesses about the backers of the study, questioned its validity and the criteria of the study, made joking (or perhaps not so joking?) hypotheses about the study’s findings, and basically implied is was all a load of bollocks… without even showing the slightest interest in reading it properly before making an assessment and passing judgement.
I know the whole breastfeeding vs bottle-feeding debate is a seriously contentious issue for many people, and these sorts of studies are always likely to get a lot of people fired up and ready to charge into battle to defend their views. It is a deeply personal issue for so many women, and a very emotive topic. As a breastfeeding mother and a birth-professional-in-training, I am deeply invested in this issue too, and I understand why people on both sides of the debate get so emotionally charged about it all.
But this type of reaction doesn’t just occur in relation to breastfeeding. We, as humans, are emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, politically, religiously and culturally invested in many, many issues. We take our opinions and ideas incredibly seriously. Our feelings and thoughts are a big freakin’ deal! We equate our ideas and opinions with our whole way of life, our identity, the core of who we see ourselves to be, our place in the world, our pride and dignity… that’s why we get so riled up when we feel our beliefs are being questioned or contradicted, perhaps even threatened. That’s why we slap on the war paint and fightin’ face when we end up in debates or arguments about these things.
I think this reaction is a natural self-protective measure, and I’d wager that pretty much everyone on the planet is guilty of reacting this way against things that threaten their sense of Self and understanding of the world, myself included.
However, when we get reactionary and defensive, serious problems arise.
First, we just flat-out alienate people. We attack them, decide they are stupid or ignorant or just plain nasty, and shut them out. In fact, we often de-humanize them, dismissing not just what we think is a faulty idea, but the person who holds that idea.
It’s not a good way to make friends. It also makes it hard to get things done, both on a personal level as well as on an international level (and every level in between).
Another serious problem is that, while so ardently defending our idea and trying to completely discredit and crush the opposition, we miss an opportunity to learn something new. We are blinded by our prejudices.
Again, to refer to my example, I can’t make an educated assessment of this particular breastfeeding study right now because I haven’t read it yet. But I do want to read it, because even if it reveals facts that don’t match what I wish were true, I’d rather know the truth.
However, it seemed that the general reaction I witnessed in this short email exchange was an automatic decision to ignore and undermine the potentially new information without even giving it a fair chance! The few people involved in the conversation had already decided in advance that the information was ‘false’; at a glance, it threatened to say something they didn’t want to be true and so they basically just didn’t want to hear it. If it didn’t match what they already believed about the issue, then it couldn’t possibly be true.
It seems to me that this kind of defensiveness is very common and also very counter-productive. I know there are most certainly benefits to breastfeeding, but if I’m sharing that opinion with others, I want to have accurate reasons for doing so. I don’t want to inadvertently promote faulty information simply because I’m too afraid to even consider the fact that I might not have all the answers. If, in my insecurity, I fail to honestly consider viewpoints and evidence that contradict my current understanding of the truth, then I run the risk of backing up my opinions with erroneous information, and ultimately that undermines the credibility of everything else I think and say when communicating my views to others.
We can’t ignore ideas, possibilities or facts just because we don’t want them to be true. We can’t let our prejudices keep us trapped in ignorance. It is scary to take that leap, to allow ourselves to consider the possibility that our beloved ideas and beliefs could be wrong, or even just incomplete. But if we can’t swallow our pride long enough to challenge our prejudices and ask honest questions about how we understand the world, then we miss tremendous opportunities to learn and grow, and to see the world around us as it truly is.
I think this quote by Bertrand Russell perfectly sums up what I’m trying to say. And his version is a lot more succinct than mine!