“Generally Speaking…”

bq. Don’t tell us over and over again how something’s a generalization and doesn’t apply to everyone. Duh. Some use of generalities are necessary with these topics. “#”:http://scatteredwords.com/meta/faq.php#q000379

Generalizations. We all use them. They’re a necessity inherent to the world of interpersonal communication. They facilitate conversation by allowing people to make their points easily and quickly by pointing to observable trends. Whole sections of social psychology textbooks (and others) are devoted to the concept of generalizations and stereotypes and their uses. It is probably impossible to get through an entire conversation without at some point using at least one generalization. It is simply the most efficient way to handle the vast amount of information at our disposal. We have to categorize it, mentally placing each bit into groupings with other bits of information that are very similar. We make mental estimates of behavioral trends based on our own experiences, knowledge, and observations. I doubt that there is anyone who readily has actual quantitative data on hand for every subject under the sun, who can point to such statistics and say definitively, “This is the way things are.” So, we generalize, a habit that is obviously limited by the availability of relevant data.

In theory, it is understood that generalizations do not speak to every person in every situation under every circumstance. Statistics themselves are only probabilities, based on past behavior, predicting what is most likely to occur in the future under similar circumstances. In actual practice, however, we find that the problem with the human makeup is that we often forget this margin of error. On the one hand, we make generalizations and begin to think that this applies to a far larger segment of the population than it actually does. This is, of course, somewhat necessary, as stated previously because if we were to point out every possible exception to the ‘rule’ all the time, no productive communication would ever occur. In many cases a compromise is reached by pointing out only those exceptions that are most relevant to the discussion at hand. But even then it is sometimes all too easy to dismiss them perfunctorily, whether because they don’t fit our generalized model or because we don’t like the implications or because they are too difficult to deal with or for some other reason.

On the other hand, some people hear generalizations that other people make and will either accept them as being all-encompassing or will quickly criticize it for not acknowledging all the exceptions. The former group may quickly grasp the point being made but then generalize said point too far, falling prey to their own naiveté. The latter group all too often _misses_ the point being made in their critical frenzy, falling prey to their own cynical rationality. A balance of both approaches is, as usual, to be found somewhere in the middle — recognizing the point of the generalization while acknowledging the fact that it does not speak to all people everywhere in all circumstances. The generalization is a shortcut of sorts, facilitating the cataloguing of societal trends. The naysayers are the ones who are either insecure or who merely like to argue with any philosophy not their own, or both. (Whether their points are valid or not is often irrelevant, as their approach to criticizing the generalization usually stonewalls further discussion.)

Finding this balance is a continual effort, requiring the mind to always be engaged at all times, sifting and filtering, striving to find the truth of the matter through open discourse and rigorous study. Critical thinking is a strong skill to possess because it allows us to first be able to make better and more accurate generalizations and then to be able to reason through other generalizations and critique them for their accuracy. It is a difficult task, to be sure, but one well worth undertaking.

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