In praise of generalization

“You’re generalizing….you’re generalizing against a people, a nation…how can you generalize?”  The way the term generalizing is used as a rhetorical foil is often to discount an argument due to the view that the person has “generalized” or “made a generalization.”  This is presented by itself as evidence of the fallacy of the argument.  “How can you generalize about a whole culture?”

Anonymous sources

Anonymous sources

Let’s start with basics of generalizations.  Critical thinking often looks at it as a necessary tool for providing evidence towards an argument and a conclusion.  But there are several fallacies associated with oversimplification.  One study defines this as occurring “when an arguer draws a conclusion from insufficient evidence, generalizing from too few facts.”  The same study notes, “generalization is essential to thinking; without it, we would not evaluate experience—only accumulate isolated bits of data.”  The same study claims that “hasty generalizations rely on unfair stereotypes; they make assertions about groups, containing thousands of individuals on the basis of a few examples which may not be at all typical of the entire class.”  The author argues that rather than using words like “always” or “never”, it is better to cover oneself by claiming that some “seldom” happens or it “usually” happens.

An introduction to developing strong thesis arguments at Purdue University notes that whether one is using inductive or deductive reasoning, the “reasoning must be based on a sufficient amount of reliable evidence” in order to form a generalization.

If the concept of generalization is so widely accepted in academics and in teaching critical thinking, then why has it gotten such a bad rap?  Why is it thrown around as an accusation so often to seemingly discount what people are saying? The concept of generalization is as old as man.  Every major religion introduces the concept of generalization as essential to man’s wellbeing and towards a well ordered society.

Let’s look at Genesis 18:16.  God ponders what to do about the evils of Sodom and Gammorah. “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” God asks.  It is a strange thing for God to ask.  Why is he beholden to Abraham?  “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”  So God decides that the generalizations he has heard must be inspected.  Abraham intercedes with God, and asks “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?”  He begs, what if there be 50 righteous men?  It is an interesting discussion, but at the heart of it is the insinuation that God has been mistaken, he has made a hasty, broad or over-generalization. 

Consider John Locke’s second treatise on government, chapter XVIII: “Where-ever law ends, tyranny begins, if the law be transgressed to another’s harm; and whosoever in authority exceeds the power given him by the law, and makes use of the force he has under his command, to compass that upon the subject, which the law allows not, ceases in that to be a magistrate; and, acting without authority, may be opposed, as any other man, who by force invades the right of another.”

Jabotinsky, in 1941, wrote; “If you want to know whether a country does not deserve the title of a true democracy, you cannot always go by the paragraphs of its constitution. . . . What you will have to examine are these two critical points. First: is it a commonwealth where the individual is regarded as sovereign, his liberty as the best of all legislation, and the state’s power to limit that liberty only admitted when absolutely indispensible..”  He elaborated; “It is far better that the individual ,errs vis-à-vis the community rather than the opposite since “Society” was created for the benefit of the individual.”

Churchill in 1934; Tthe lucid intervals of peace and order only occurred in human history after armaments in the hands of strong governments have come into being, and civilization in every age has been nursed only in cradles guarded by superior weapons and superior discipline.”

Maybe you prefer Karl Marx in 1850, “In spite of the industrial and commercial prosperity that France momentarily enjoys, the mass of the people, the twenty-five million peasants, suffer from a great depression.”  Or Chinua Achebe in his essay on Joseph Conrad in 1988; “when I thought of the West’s television and cinema and newspapers, about books read in its schools and out of school, of churches preaching to empty pews about the need to send help to the heathen in Africa, I realized that no easy optimism was possible. And there was, in any case, something totally wrong in offering bribes to the West in return for its good opinion of Africa.”

These are scary generalizations.  But we readily accept them from whatever sources we determine as deserving of our affection.  If you are a radical libertarian you accept the generalizations of Ayn Rand, or if you are a communist you might like Antonio Gramsci.  Maybe you prefer Swami Vivekananda.  Whatever current political movement you like or literary movement or intellectual discipline, you adhere to generalizations.

The concept of fearing generalizations has primarily been put forward to prevent us from critiquing things one doesn’t like.  Whether it is any discussion of Islamism or of the failures of various countries, or cultures, the concept of “don’t generalize” is trotted out as a shield.  Observable patterns of behavior are always covered up with “don’t generalize.” Is lying more common among certain groups or bribery?  Of course it is.  But the theory of “don’t generalize” is put forward to shield that group from any critique.

Is an area of a city “dangerous”?  Well we mustn’t generalize.  How many murders were committed there?  How many rapes?  Maybe very few.  So the accusation is a “stereotype.”  But maybe from simple observation one feels uncomfortable.  You could ascribe that to the person’s own narrow minded and ignorant bias.  But sometimes low levels of hostility are easily discernable with the eye, with an indescribable feeling. “This doesn’t feel right.”  Well, that’s a generalization.  Is driving in snow “dangerous”?   Most drivers survive driving in snow, so by that logic it may not be dangerous.  Not every car in Maine or Canada has been destroyed due to driving in winter.  In may in fact be true that driving in Miami one is more likely to be in a car accident.  Does that mean it is wrong to generalize about the fact that snow conditions are dangerous.

The fact is that most people who put forward the “don’t generalize” accusation are the greatest generalizers.  “Southerners are racist” is the same comment the person who says “don’t generalize abut African-Americans” will say.  “White people are bad dancers”, the person who says “don’t generalize about Arabs” will say.  Don’t generalize about Turkish immigrants in Germany, but generalize about Irish drunkards.  Don’t generalize about Rabbis sexually harassing congregants, but do generalize about the pederast Priests.

Generalization is key to human existence from the moment one walks out the door.  Is it chilly, is it windy, what do the clouds look like?  Is the person on the bench drunk, homeless or dead?  Is the woman pestering you on the bus crazy or a prostitute?  Is that white powder in the bathroom likely to be baking soda or cocaine?  We generalize about the specific and make conclusions about specific thing due to the experience of generalization.



2 responses to “In praise of generalization

  1. Generalizing, as in your comments, requires making an ‘educated guess,’ as in your white powder example. And despite the high percentages of college graduates in our world, society is getting dumb and dumber.

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