For Girl Scouts, That’s the Way the Cookie Crumbles

For those of us in the United States, it’s that time of year again. It’s time for us to throw our diets to the wind, open our doors to little girls in uniform and chow down on Girl Scout cookies. It’s a venerable tradition, one which has been going on for more than 80 years. Most people really enjoy the cookies and it’s a great way for the girls to learn about teamwork, the marketplace and fund raising.

Thankfully, other than having to buy the cookies they intend to sell (which seems a bit hard on the girls), the way appears smooth for the Girl Scouts in 2014. The controversies that surrounded them during the last few years seem to have resolved themselves. Girl Scout cookiesLast year in particular was crazy with some people organizing boycotts and refusing to buy the cookies. Little girls were turned away at the door, especially in places like Texas where intolerance and ignorance seem to be state-wide pastimes (as I live here, I should know). You might reasonably wonder what caused such anger toward an organization that has always been dedicated to the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of girls. Good question.

From what I can tell, there were two distinct controversies swirling around the Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA). The first involved some people’s mistaken beliefs that the GSUSA has ties to Planned Parenthood and actively promotes abortion and gay rights. They’re also angry about their policy of supporting religious tolerance (oh, the horror!).

The second hullabaloo involved 7-year-old Bobby Montoya, who was initially refused entry into a troop because Bobby “has boy parts,” even though she identifies as a girl and has been raised as one. The larger leadership of the Girl Scouts blamed the initial decision to exclude the child on ignorance of the Scouts’ policy. They subsequently concluded that Bobby was welcome to join Girl Scouts: “If a child identifies as a girl and the child’s family presents her as a girl, Girl Scouts of Colorado welcomes her as a Girl Scout.”

After reading that the situation was resolved, I thought all was well and, as a former Girl Scout, I was quite proud of their policy of inclusivity. Unlike the Boy Scouts, who have no problems prohibiting membership based on sexuality and religious beliefs, the GSUSA seems focused on supporting all girls. However, that was just the beginning; then the ubiquitous morality police started to weigh in — everyone from Fox News’ Medical A-Team expert Dr Keith Ablow to a few troop leaders in Louisiana to a 14-year-old Girl Scout from California, who complained that allowing Bobby entry into a troop was dangerous and even “a form of abuse.” There’s even a Facebook page called “Make Girl Scouts Clean Again,” which encourages people to stop buying cookies. Unfortunately, the Facebook page is still up and running although it doesn’t seem like it gets a lot of visits.

Apparently the GSUSA is used to being under fire. In 1947, people were outraged when GSUSA handbooks included images of African American girls. They were derided for internationalism during the height of McCarthyism (the 1950s), and now various religious organizations tend to get in a huff when local troops discuss certain issues, like pregnancy and contraception, that have relevance to girls. The leadership of the GSUSA isn’t buying all the charges of radicalism. As one of their developmental psychologists explained, “We can’t be radical; we take no political position. We are really so moderate. To many just the concept of girls or women in leadership is a radical notion.” Indeed.

I have to admit that I was puzzled and somewhat shocked by the charges against the GSUSA. Really? People were getting that upset over one 7-year-old child joining a troop? They’re working themselves into a tizzy over non-existent links to controversial organizations? It seemed ridiculous yet it was (and is) happening. My first thought is that these people have too much time on their hands and/or clearly do not understand that we have real problems to worry about (you know, things like the destruction of our environment, poverty and violence). My next thought was about how prejudice was at work here.

These controversies are based in prejudice which is attracted by the nature of the organization they are concentrated upon. The GSUSA helps girls become leaders. They teach them skills, help them gain confidence and emphasize great ideas like tolerance and inclusivity. In short, they are a positive organization that does what it needs to do to help girls grow. It is this fearlessness that makes them a target for those whose beliefs are marred by prejudice.

Prejudice is quite an interesting phenomenon. It helps boost self-esteem (by putting others down, you make yourself look good), saves cognitive effort (because stereotypes rely on quick, heuristic processing), and is often unconscious. Thus, the amazing thing about prejudice is not that it exists but rather that it is omnipresent. It is easily provoked, expressed in many different ways, and the beliefs are frequently held with great resolve. These characteristics make prejudice very difficult to change.

One thing that makes prejudice even more difficult to transform is the disconnection of our culture. If we don’t like something, we can distance, even isolate, ourselves from the offending group or belief. We can surround ourselves with like-minded individuals who perpetuate our prejudices and never seek to challenge our belief system. Consequently, we are able to easily enact behaviors that increase, instead of reduce, prejudice. In contrast, if all of these people who are so upset about the thought of transgendered girls joining the GSUSA were to have to work with the transgender community to get something done, they just might change their minds. If people who are troubled by the idea of a “gay agenda” inside the GSUSA were to see gay people as individuals rather than a group, they might lose their stereotypes. However, in this day and age, that is unlikely to happen. Thus, perhaps unconsciously, we’ve set up a society in which prejudice can thrive.

The Girl Scouts have set up their organization in a way that is the very opposite of this structure and that is one thing that makes the Girl Scouts so great: their environment is one in which prejudice is difficult to maintain. By the very nature of its existence, their policy of inclusiveness teaches tolerance. All girls are considered special and welcome. In so doing, many different perspectives will be heard. The GSUSA troop system also fosters cooperation and interdependence by having individual troop members work together for larger goals (e.g., raising enough money from cookie sales to do a certain activity). As such, the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality is changed because girls who are different are now part of the in-group, the troop.

Because of the special way the GSUSA encourages togetherness, leadership and growth, they were able to weather the storm of controversy and emerged better than ever. I’m so glad they did because we need more of the good than the bad. So, toward ensuring that their special and much needed organization continues to thrive, I’m going to go buy some cookies!

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