Why “Not All Homeschoolers” and “No True Christians” Silence Dialogue

Editorial note: The following is reprinted with permission from Eleanor Skelton’s blog, The Girl Who Once Lived in a Box. It was originally published on November 1, 2015.

So I’m active in several online communities that discuss homeschooling and spiritual abuse. I also read a lot. Almost daily, I post articles and blog posts that I find interesting.

I’m also Facebook friends with people I met during each of the four times I moved cross-country between Texas and Colorado, people from every church I went to growing up, every place I’ve worked, people who are my fellow homeschool alumni and college classmates. This means that everything I share is being viewed by people all over the human spectrum. 

I value this diversity, that my community is no echo chamber. I welcome the opportunity to be challenged and corrected and grow, and I hope my friends do, too.

Yes, there are periodic flame wars in the comments, but I’ve also seen successful dialogue. This is why I want to foster debates and discussion, because I believe that if I limit myself to only people who agree with me, change will never happen.

But a couple of arguments surface over and over.

“Not all homeschoolers were raised in cults.”

“What does abuse in these churches have to do with true Christianity?”

And these rebuttals are killing our discussions. Here’s why. This week, I read an article posted by Relevant magazine on why there’s a problem with saying All Lives Matter. The subtitle read: “There’s a difference between ‘true’ and ‘helpful.’”

Responses like this usually demonstrate a failure to listen. Conversations usually go:

Person 1: “This is what my experience with homeschooling / purity culture was like.”
Person 2: “Good point, but remember, not all homeschoolers were abused / raised in cults.”
Person 1: *awkward silence* (thinks) But I wasn’t talking about all homeschoolers. I was talking about me.

And they feel like you don’t think their story is important.

It’s hard to have these conversations, I think. If you say, “Hey, this happened and it was bad,” or express criticism, you get a lot of “not all homeschoolers” responses. Which is technically true.

But the one doesn’t invalidate the other. Sure, not all homeschoolers were raised in cults. But some were, and problematic and harmful things happened as a result. I’m not against homeschooling as a form of education, and I don’t think it should be banned, but I do think the problems within the movement must be addressed.

“No True Christian” is basically another version of the No True Scotsman fallacy.

Person 1: “This really awful thing happened in my church / to Amish girls / to Pentecostals.”
Angry Defensive Person 1: “Not all Apostolic Pentecostals are like this!”
Angry Defensive Person 2: “What does this have to do with true Christianity?”

These comments are missing the point. Orthodoxy isn’t the issue here, abuse is. And if you’re more concerned with heresy than hurting people, you are contributing to the problem.

And almost every group thinks they are the true believers, the genuine thing. So asking whether or not the Amish are truly Christians is irrelevant. They believe they are. That’s why they live in isolation, making sure they aren’t corrupted by deviating opinions. Other high control religious groups operate similarly.

Just because you might not believe cult members or other denominations are actually Christians doesn’t stop them from identifying as believers. But shouldn’t Christians be more concerned about people who claim to follow their savior perpetrating abuse than whether or not the abusers are heretics?

Let’s be honest here. We use these arguments to protect ourselves. We don’t want to be associated with sexual abuse and hypocrisy, we don’t want our image threatened. So we cry “not all homeschoolers” to defend our educations, and “not true Christians” to defend our core beliefs. We don’t want to think that our community might be wrong, we hide our faces from the wounds, cover our ears and refuse to listen.

And we need to stop.

14 comments

  • My husband has said that one of the weaknesses of a medical education is that the student is exposed to the extreme, the unhealthy, the “out of the range of normal” with only minimal exposure to what is normal. The tendency of many physicians is to then treat all patients as “ill/sick” or “out of the range of normal”. While many physicians soon move away from this model as they become more experienced, they can do a lot of damage until gaining that experience.

    I believe that something similar is happening in this kind of dialogue. HA and others have encouraged those who did not have a healthy experience with homeschooling to lay it out and deal with it. This is good! But there is very little tempering this discussion in these forums. I am not sure what the answer is, but there does need to be balance, as well as exposing to light that which is evil and deadly. And sometimes, waiting for experience can be deadly in itself.

    • Thank you! My thoughts exactly! I don’t think the “issue” should be related to a specific group. I was raise in a complete nonChristian home and went to public school and had the experience of total authoritarianism and sexual abuse. I understand people saying that it hasn’t happened in their situation . Authoritarianism and abuse are wrong and happen everywhere!

      • You’re comment is factually accurate. But some orthodoxies that identify themselves as Christian contain certain concepts, rules, and norms that are directly related to adverse upbringings.

        It’s regrettable if someone (say a father) is personally disposed to beat up on his wife and kids. When that behavour is mandated by an explicit ideology, there is a more serious problem that is peculiar to one group more than another.

    • I think in general the conversation on here generally distinguishes between problematic upbringings and the fact homeschooling by Christians or non Christians can produce happy, well adjusted young adults. This particular article is a mild exception to that norm, per my comment below.

      On the other hand, I get that a person who had a positive, or largely positive, experience with homeschooling could interpret the prevalence of negative experiences recounted here as something that by omission misrepresents homeschooling. The administrators realize this, and have made a point of publishing some positive stories.

      Another concern is just because people have been harmed doesn’t mean they’re automatically right about everything, all the time. In common law the rule is ‘no man a judge in his own case’, and that applies to both victims and victimizers. We are often so very unaware of our biases, yet I have noticed an operation where any attempts to dissent from the consensus draws not only rebuttals (nothing wrong with that), but statements these should never have been made in the first place as they erase/deny/revictimize/trigger/delegitimize/stigmatize the experiences in question. That’s a very dangerous mental attitude, and it effectively liberates a point of view from the criticism it must defend itself from to have a persuasive value.

  • I remember taking part in sort of a counter protest to the angry preachers who came to campus to warn students about hell. All the ministry groups on campus would basically apologize to other students, saying “Not all Christians are like this,” and similar sentiments. The intentions were good, but it never occurred to me that this was unhelpful. Now that I’ve had a few run-ins with the Not All Christians rebuttal against my experiences, I understand why.

  • Loura Shares A Story

    Yay for “Jaws” reference! Now, I’ll go back and actually read the post. 😉

    • Loura Shares A Story

      “the one doesn’t invalidate the other” and your conclusion were spot-on. It drives me nuts that so many people want to talk, just to hear themselves, it seems. They don’t want dialog, they don’t really want to hear another’s voice or opinion or experience, because it doesn’t matter to them. What has it got to do with them, or their church, their group, their family, etc.? Stuff like that “would never” happen in their perfect (ah, but here the caveat: “Of course we’re not perfect, Christians aren’t perfect, churches aren’t perfect. I’m sorry you had a bad experience, but you need to let it go. Anger=bitterness=rebellion=sin.”) group…

  • How about:
    Person 2: “Good point, but remember, not all homeschoolers were abused / raised in cults.”
    Person 1: *That’s also a good point. Good parents *can* homeschool, while abusers and female denigrators can flourish in any setting, can’t they? I worry more about homeschoolers, though, because they can be so isolated that no one knows the abuse is going on. Plus, if you *are* raised in a homeschooling or otherwise isolated in a cult, a child can have so little contact with the outside world, they can literally not know there’s another way to be.

    Or: it sounds like you’re worried that I’m saying your homeschooling means you’re in a cult, or abusive. Am I hearing that right?

  • The No True Scotsman fallacy is logically inadmissible because arbitrary criteria are introduced (often retroactively) to redefine membership in a set. However, often a ‘no true scotsman’ accusation itself commits the fallacy by arbitrarily including behaviours or beliefs the accuser perceives to be endemic in a group.

    So the following must be borne in mind:

    Is there a rigorous way to determine the category of Scotsman? Note there may be competing taxonomies of what determines the quality of Scottishness, in which case use of ‘no true scotsman’ would be in bad faith and reduce academic debate to a series of rhetorical rejoinders. (For example, there is an extensive discussion in academia as to whether a ‘true’ democracy is capable of starting a war of aggression). If a rigorous criteria can be developed that excludes certain characteristics, no true Scotsman does not apply.

    In the light of this clarification, the first assertion below contradicts the second, and the second commits the fallacy.

    – ‘These comments are missing the point. Orthodoxy isn’t the issue here, abuse is. And if you’re more concerned with heresy than hurting people, you are contributing to the problem’

    – ‘Just because you might not believe cult members or other denominations are actually Christians doesn’t stop them from identifying as believers. But shouldn’t Christians be more concerned about people who claim to follow their savior perpetrating abuse than whether or not the abusers are heretics?’

    In the first assertion, it is recognized the set of behaviours and beliefs in a number of Christian orthodoxies do not sanction abuse, but then in the second a number of orthodoxies with their attached ‘in-groups’ are arbitrarily combined and made responsible for each other. Based on this logic, the Anglican Church is somehow responsible for remedying the Jehovah Witness sex abuse scandal despite the fact much of the abuse originated from a doctrinal rule peculiar to JWs requiring two witnesses to indict an abuser . If no true scotsman means categories can be arbitrarily combined, there is a chilling effect on analysis, which depends upon discrimination.

    Now you can certainly argue the composition of a set on any number of grounds, but it has to be that – an argument, implying a certain degree of rigor. And of course, one only needs to make arguments where many variables, nuances, complexities, and hence counterarguments reside. So an appeal to honesty and no true scotsman becomes a strawberry shortcut to the long, hard, analytic road of showing the commonalities necessary to place two sets in a superset and enjoin that superset mobilize against an intramural problem.

    These debates are rarely won decisively and are usually interminable, and so we must face the reality categories are inherently dialectical.

    Unless you are wish to engage in systematic theorizing about the benefits and ills of Christianity as a superset, the easiest solution is to either (a) show a specific orthodoxy (ie, purity culture) leads to harm, or (b) an orthodoxy which should lead to good is being violated (ie, oppressive treatment of children contradicts Christ’s respectful treatment of them). ‘No true scotsman’ opens a discursive can of worms, and is antagonistic to boot.

  • Good god I hate that “not all _____ are like that” phrase. It’s purposeful resistance against change—positive change. You know something is important when you make a comment about your own private life experience, and the listener assumes you mean to upend the entire universe. “My homeschool parents hit me” becomes “I’m taking all your influence over your children away.” “No no, I mean they literally beat the crap out of me.” What’s the easiest reply, even if you don’t care? Just say “I’m sorry to hear that.” And you’re done.

    I feel like one of the quickest ways to understand someone is to find where they eliminate simple and easily rational sympathy. Saying “I stubbed my toe” shouldn’t get a reply like “well all your other toes are fine!”

  • Pingback: Do I support homeschooling? – this way of being

  • The thing is that sometimes you’re talking about your own experience and sometimes you’re assuming your experience applies to everyone. I have seen people on this blog who really don’t seem to get that not all homeschoolers are like that. And then “not all homeschoolers” really needs to be said – for the sake of kids like me, for whom homeschooling is essential. I was severely depressed and anxious, talking about suicide in school. And at that point, I can’t really think of any setting other than unschooling that I was able to handle.
    And comparing this to all lives matter is deeply problematic. White people are privileged over black people due to their race. Homeschooling is not privileged. My parents were told repeatedly that they were ruining my life and I’d get no decent education, meanwhile they had to struggle to figure out how to homeschool me as a full-time worker (Dad) and a graduate student/sessional instructor (Mom), and jump through legal hoops to meet the requirements for homeschooling set by people who have no idea what homeschooling is actually like. In fact the conservative homeschoolers often look a whole lot more privileged than my parents – they could afford to have a stay at home parent, they have a lot more community support, and very few of them seem to struggle to make ends meet like my parents did. (We couldn’t afford a fancy curriculum even if it would have worked for me. We could barely even afford to keep our car on the road. And I remember us getting food from the food bank at least once.)
    From my perspective, most of you come from privileged but dysfunctional families.

    • the thing is – you were privileged to stay at home and be educated that way.

      and it is very dismissive to say ‘not all homeschoolers’ over and over again. we all know that not all homeschoolers do this. but it matters to hear and bear witness to the stories of those who have had abusive and awful experiences.

      there are plenty of venues in which positive stories of homeschooling are shared.

      this is one of very few that show the ugly side of homeschooling.

      this is one of very few that hold forth that regulating homeschooling is for the safety of ALL children.

    • ettincat, personal statement here, you are making assumptions about people’s motives and thoughts while dismissing their stories. You do not get to do that. You do not recognize that not every parent has the means or expertise to homeschool and do it right. It is a privilege not afforded to everyone. I was homeschooled in a cult. I know that side of homeschool. I also homeschool one of my children due to emotional needs. Believe me I see both sides of this situation. But the fact that homeschooling is helpful for some does not erase that it has been harmful for many others. And knowing the fact that it helped my child does not change the fact that I will not rest until homeschool is safe for all children. I do not want to see another child abused, left with no education, or killed just because it may create a few extra steps for me.

      Now I’m putting on my admin hat: Stop dismissing the stories of survivors and tone policing them or your comments will be deleted.

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