You discover that your new doctor writes legibly. You know an engineer who writes good English. You hear a sermon – or read a blog – that is not boring. You meet your friend’s mother-in-law and find out that she is a pleasant, non-intrusive, non-domineering woman. You encounter a believer who takes your atheist objections seriously. You meet a priest who is not pedophile.
That last example is a cruel joke that is neither valid nor funny. But it and all the others would usually be followed by the cliché : “the exception proves the rule”. We understand and use the expression to suggest that though doctors, as a … rule, are renowned for their illegible writing, yours has hand-writing you can read. Engineers, according to a widespread prejudice, do not usually have a great command of the language. The one you know does. And so on.
As John Bremner points out in his “Words upon Words”, “an exception doesn’t demonstrate the truth of a rule; it tries to demonstrate the opposite”. He goes on to point out that exceptions do TEST a rule : “an exception puts a rule to the test”. From time immemorial we have been saying “De gustibus et coloribus non est disputandum” (“There is no point in arguing about tastes and colors”). But if you have a meal with French friends, someone will usually start holding forth on the wine, on the flavors he detects in it, and expressing his preference for Bordeaux rather than Bourgogne. Someone will necessarily disagree. When I see people talking at great length with a salesman of electronic cigarettes, they all seem to be engaged in long discussions which can only be about the savors of the flavors they favor or disfavor. Whether we approve of it or not, people do argue about tastes, and women in particular spend inordinate amounts of time arguing about the colors of the clothes they and rivals wear, and of the wallpaper or paint they want in the living room.
After all that, it should be obvious that we ought to be wary of generalizations and prejudices (including those about women . . .). Some atheists are convinced that non-atheists are all either too stupid or too dishonest to admit that God does not exist. Some believers are convinced that non-believers reject religion because they prefer to lead immoral lives and are so afraid of going to Hell that they deny the existence of an afterlife. It is however possible that people who disagree with us have very good, solid reasons for their belief or disbelief. There must be no exception to the rule that disagreement about opinions should not imply disrespect for the person who holds them.
P.S. The comments provoked by this post, notably from Thom, have modified the author’s point of view on this subject.