Thinking For Yourself (Generalisations)

The only true generalization is the generalization that every generalization is incorrect.

When we generalize we take leaps in logic and rationality based upon very little evidence. The worst kind of generalization, therefore, is a generalization based upon a single instance; where we have encountered something to be one way once, and then proceed to argue that it is one way always.

Generalizations are dangerous because they lack the requisite contestation against opposing pieces of evidence. A single shred of evidence to the contrary of any generalization should be enough to bring it crashing down upon our heads. Yet too often we deny that any such evidence exists, or never look for it ourselves. When we are confronted by it, we squirm, and try to deny it’s validity; or ignore it altogether. Too often we assume ourselves to be 100% correct, 100% of the time, without making concessions as to how or when our generalisations have been wrong before. Too often confirmation bias gets in the way. We especially remember the red traffic lights, when 60% of the lights were green.

Yet to generalize is in and of itself dangerous, for in generalizing we have the capacity to cause great offence, insult and injury. When we admit to ourselves that everyone is an individual, then to generalize about others is to ingratiate upon ourselves a false belief. If everyone is an individual, then any generalization is flawed intrinsically, by virtue of attempting to define general characters where only individual characteristics exist. In so doing, we are lying about who someone fundamentally is.

To generalize about a particular race or sex is even worse – for when a society at large believes a particular group to be one way or another, then that group is often pressured into performing their designated role, or pressured to rebel against it to prove a point. Too often we assume, by what little evidence is handed to us by limited sources that certain groups or people act in a certain way. Too often we avoid substantially verifying these claims.

Even if a group has a tendency to act in a certain way, it is an insult to the individuality of its members to presume that everyone therein acts that way.

Thinking back to your own school, you can picture the diversity of the characters in the playground. Outsiders might have thought your school produced a certain kind of student. But you knew the truth in the diversity of people you knew. This is the core problem with generalizations. Outsiders, who have little information to go on, make greater claims than you individually, who have more information, would ever make. So misinformation spreads.

This kind of thinking is rampant in our society. Some argue that generalizations are necessary for our day-to-day lives to be efficient or expedient. Were we to recognize people individually, we would not have our neat little categories by which to label everyone, and our systems would cease functioning. Yet would losing these categories be such a great loss? Wouldn’t the boon in individual self-proclamation, outweigh any loss of expediency or efficiency?

Don’t we deserve higher order thinking? Higher than the slap dash approach of labelling bodies of people we have never met? Higher than the leaps of logic required to go from one instance to a proclamation about every instance? Higher than any generalization can reach?