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Thursday, November 01, 2007

All People Who Make Generalizations Are Idiots

Or are they? Greetings from Basil Guildersleeve, current guest writer for rightwingtestimonial. If you weren't able to guess from the title, the first thing I'd like to talk about is language, since language is what a blog revolves around, and the use of language is critical to communication and understanding. Lacking these things, the blog (or any other medium of communication) become pointless exercises.

So. Generalizations. They have crept into the language, slowly but surely. The average person uses them every day.
"Horror movies are scary!"
"Fruit is nasty."
"Alaska is always cold."
What say you to this? Are you guilty of the crime? Yet people are very quick to try and cast the first stone, because yes, stones are being cast. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and generalizations are being attacked at every turn. Sweeping generalizations, they're called, to cast a negative connotation about them. Why? Because generalizations stretch into grayer areas, areas that tend to push people's buttons.
"Women are physically weaker than men."
"People that don't go to college are less intelligent."
"Americans are rich arrogant snobs to the rest of the world."
Et cetera ad infinitum.

When these sorts of generalizations appear, people get defensive. They try to provide counter examples from their own life experience.
"I know a guy that never went to college, and he went on to found his own company! That proves you wrong!"
"There's a woman in my town that count bench more than any of the guys around. She proves you wrong."
"Charles Martel was a French general that didn't surrender. So don't go making broad generalizations like that."

People somehow feel that by digging up exceptions to the rule, they can prove the law wrong. But what people have to remember is a rule that actually comes from the sciences: "Anecdotal evidence is not data." And thus we come around to the point. Science operates not under the principle of facts (at least not the common definition of facts), but under probability. alpha is less than or equal to .05. Or in layman's terms, if there is a ninety five percent chance or greater of something being right, it's accepted as true.

Now, to put this in even more layman-esque terms, or to apply the principle to our area of language, we can make generalizations. Generalizations become popular or common for good reason. For instance, the generalization about women being physically weaker than men. Are some women stronger than some men? Yes. But the exceptions prove the rules, they don't negate them. We could do scientific studies to "prove" our point about the sexes relative strength, but we don't need to. The whole idea of a generalization is not to make a blanket statement (i.e. All men are stronger than all women), though colloquially the idea may be expressed that way, in which case a reprimand may be in order so that the weaker brother in the faith (so to speak) does not stumble and believe something untrue. Rather, the generalization does just what the name implies: it makes a statement of general truth.

We have dealt with objections from the angle of exceptions and explained how absurd it is to try and deal with disproving generalizations with them. But there are other objections, such as the objection of perspective. To put this into concrete terms, let's take a hypothetical example. Our generalization: "Antarctica is always so darn cold." But look, Gerald protests. "From most people's perspectives, that may be true, but my Aunt Susie's friend Darrel works as a scientist there, and he says it gets quite warm in the summer." Now, Gerald isn't exactly using an exception, but rather another man's perspective (though in this case it does happen to be going against majority opinion as well). But is it useful, we ask, to use the perspective of that man instead of our own for the purposes of our conversations back in our home town? Probably not. And that is important, because the whole reason we used the generalization in the first place was for its efficaciousness in making a point. For instance, take one of my own sentences from earlier in this post:
"People somehow feel that by digging up exceptions to the rule, they can prove the law wrong."
Do ALL people feel this way? Of course not. But if I had to bother to go through every single one of my generalizations and qualify them down to the individual level (which is what people that whine about exceptions are therefore asking for), that would defeat the point of trying to make a point through generalizations altogether. But if we don't use generalizations, then we can't get our point across. What a quandary...unless we accept that generalizations are not as harmful as they appear.

Then, of course, there's the third type of people that object to generalizations: because they just don't like them, usually because it reflects badly on them. "Drunkards act stupid." People easily get riled up about that one. I have little to say to this type of people other than suck it up. Either you can try to change the stereotype by actually going through and changing all the individuals (usually a highly unlikely proposition), or you can disassociate yourself from the stereotype. If you aren't willing to change yourself or others, you can take all the offense you want, but it won't change the generalization, and you taking offense is not enough to justify people not using the generalization. Actions have always had consequences--you just happen to be suffering some of the negative ones.

We've explained why we shouldn't not use generalizations...but why should we use them? We've sort of hinted at some of the reasons already, but here's a couple of reasons if the benefits are not already obvious:
1) Getting your point across easily. This is most easily done by generalizations--if one had to qualify every single statement one made that used to be a generalization, you'd take longer to say anything than the Ents did at their Entmoot. And that, we know, would have resulted in disaster for Rohan. Concise speech is a virtue.
2) Having strong language. No, not vulgar language, but strong language. In other words, having qualifiers weakens your speech. Eventually, it will seem like you are saying nothing at all. Sidestepping, equivocating, pussyfooting, whatever you wish to call it. Better to make generalizations than suffer the lack of charisma that comes from sounding like a wimp.

Now, of course, the natural reaction (ah, good products of the reactions of the times!) is to say, but Basil, what about the exceptions that actually are sweeping generalizations, and not only generalizations, but misleading generalizations? To that, I say that if I responded, I would be defeating the whole point of this post by giving in and qualifying my generalization of a post. Because yes, this post was just one big generalization. Yes, it is still true, and yes I still got my point across (hopefully). Why spoil such a good thing?

Or are you saying abuses mean that something shouldn't be used at all? But that will be another argument.


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