September 30, 2011
Recently I wrote an article about women’s tendency to support statist candidates. As my emails attest, it was met with quite a positive response. Yet, not surprisingly, there was also a very predictable one: complaints about generalizations. For instance, one respondent wrote that she was tired of the “all men are this and all women are that” tripe.
Of course, people only complain about generalizations when they hear one they don’t like and, perhaps, are unable to refute. But you can rest assured that they generalize just like anyone else; in fact, generalizations are woven so seamlessly into our thinking and discourse that we often utter them unthinkingly as a matter of course. Just consider how often people say things such as “Why do men never ask directions?!” or “It drives me crazy when guys flip from one TV channel to another rapid-fire!” But do all men do these things? I always ask directions and hate the habit of using a remote control like a musical keyboard. Nevertheless, I’ll be the first to admit that those generalizations are clearly valid.
The problem with blanket condemnations of generalizations is that they shut down debate. They are, in a way, akin to responding to someone who substantively criticizes Barack Obama or rap artists by accusing him of being a “racist.” It doesn’t address the particulars of the criticism, which may or may not be correct; it avoids them with the implication that, in principle, criticizing a black person is wrong because it reflects prejudice. Likewise, to respond to a group analysis by condemning generalization in principle allows one to avoid having to address it in the particular. Note that while this can be a very conscious ploy, it often isn’t. Sometimes it’s just an emotional reaction to an unpleasant truth and reflects sloppy thinking.
Absent reason-clouding emotion, however, intelligent people will easily grasp the nature of generalizations. If I say “Men are taller than women,” it doesn’t mean to relate the idea that all men are taller than all women; it means that as a group men are taller than women. Of course, one could try to become Mr. Spock and descend into insufferable literalism. But I don’t expect anytime soon to see people parading about saying things such as, “According to a 2007 American Automobile Association study, 86 percent of men ask directions only 7 percent of the time, 8 percent of men ask directions 41 percent of the time, and 6 percent of men have wives who don’t let them drive.”
Generalizations are necessary to understand the world and promote the common good. If we didn’t acknowledge that breast cancer is a “women’s” disease (although it occasionally does afflict men), we wouldn’t know where to focus resources when combating it. And what would be the consequence if we didn’t acknowledge that blacks don’t perform as well academically as whites? A problem must be recognized before it can be remedied.
To condemn generalization in principle is to descend into radicalism. For painting every group with the same brush is to deny reality just as doing so with individuals does. And the rule here is simple: Just as we must judge every individual as an individual, we must judge every individual group as an individual group.
Moreover, except insofar as certain groups can be defined by association (e.g., the NRA) – and, even here, the members generally have something in common – it is only generalizations that enable us to recognize and speak of “groups” in the first place. It’s as with individuals. If all people were identical in every respect, the only way we would be able to know they are different beings is that they are unable to occupy the same space at the same time. Yet we would not be able to pick a person we saw earlier in the day out of a line-up. Likewise, we could divide identical people into two groups – as if drawing up sides for a basketball game – and differentiate between them based on location. But this wouldn’t be a meaningful difference, and the fact is that we will speak of “groups” even though their members are generally dispersed and intermingled.
This is only possible because we differentiate among them through the recognition of general collective differences – otherwise known as generalizations. And here we should take note of some very fashionable advice. We’re often told that to understand people better, we must understand their differences; in fact, in this context we’re told to celebrate differences. But when the matter is any but the most inconsequential group differences – and especially when the unfavorable variety are exhibited by a politically favored group – we’re warned of even acknowledging them. Yet the same thing applies: If we want to understand a group better, we must understand its differences.
And what can we say about an effort to deny differences? Well, there is no shortage of dystopian novels and films about despotic governments that seek to eliminate individual differences as they transform each person into an interchangeable part in the machinery of the state. We call this frightening scenario the stamping out of individuality.
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But what of the obscuration of group character? For sure, the statists among us often claim to be very concerned about it when defending an indigenous people whose culture is threatened; then they will tout “diversity.” Yet they get it wrong all the way around. Differences aren’t good by nature. They aren’t bad by nature. Nor are they neutral by nature, because Truth isn’t relative and not all differences are a matter of taste. Differences are only different by nature.
Thus, whether the matter is individuals or groups, the truth is the same. Some differences, such as a tendency toward criminality or excessive drink, should be stamped out; others, such as a proclivity for science, math or the arts, should be applauded. Yet others, such as a liking for a different healthful food, are idiosyncrasies only to be noted. But whether they be of an individual or a group, of the good or the bad, of the funny or the sad, they all have one thing in common: They are realities. And Reality can either be an ever-faithful ally or a most fearsome foe. The more you deny him, the more vicious his bite. And the closer you hold him, the more he opens your eyes, mind and heart.