What is a Generalization?, Part I

Generalizations are at the heart of most, if not all, rhetorical arguments. Whether you’re talking about vaccinations, inner city crime, gun control, or international diplomacy, people’s positions depend on generalizations. I am a staunch believer in the validity of generalizations as a concept and will be relying on them heavily in my arguments. Thus it is important to discuss them early on in Span the Spectrum’s life.

So let’s break it down from a few different angles:

1. Conservatives’ views on generalizations vs. Liberals’.

2. Liberals’ behavior when it comes to generalizations.

3. What are generalizations, really?

4. Are generalizations valid enough to use when constructing an argument, and how can they be abused?

CONSERVATIVES VS. LIBERALS

Conservatives are big fans of generalizations. They perceive patterns in our society and then extrapolate those patterns to define entire groups. However, the issue with Conservatives is that there are many times when they inappropriately apply true generalizations or base their true generalizations on false premises, which then lead them to faulty conclusions.

For example, many Conservatives believe that black people are inferior to white people (faulty conclusion). Why do they believe that? One reason is because black people are far more likely to commit crimes than any other race (correct generalization). However, Conservatives believe that black people are more likely to commit crimes because they are genetically inferior (faulty premise). Thus leading to their incorrect belief that black people are inferior to white people. (Why Conservatives believe that genetic inferiority is the root cause and not other factors is a post for another day. Today we’ll stay focused on generalizations.)

Liberals hate generalizations. Liberals say they do not believe in generalizations. They say they believe that people are individually unique, and therefore any absolute statements that seek to group them together cannot logically hold in the face of that individuality.

In the example above, Liberals will typically attack Conservatives’ conclusion on black people in one of several ways:

  1. Refuting the conclusion. They’ll say black people are not inferior to white people, which is true, but simply denying the conclusion will go nowhere in terms of convincing people that their conclusions are wrong. Liberals must dive deeper and disassemble the entire argument.
  2. Misrepresenting the generalization. Liberals will say things like “not all black people commit crimes” or “black people don’t commit more crimes than white people.” However, neither of these accurately represent the generalization being made.
  3. Denying the generalization. Liberals will claim that black people aren’t more likely to commit crimes. However, this statement is statistically incorrect, and denying reality simply alienates your opponent and robs you of your credibility. (Liberals, think of how frustrating it is and how you shut down when Conservatives deny the realities of climate change.)
  4. Denying all generalizations. Liberals’ favorite argument is that generalizations are inherently flawed; so the conclusion is wrong simply because the argument was based on a generalization — any generalization.

However, what Liberals rarely do is accept a true generalization as true and then attack the false premises on which it is based or the incorrect ways in which the conclusion is applied.

LIBERALS’ USE OF GENERALIZATIONS

Here’s the thing though, Liberals use generalizations just as much as Conservatives.

“But wait, I thought you said Liberals hate generalizations and regularly declare them as invalid rhetorical constructs?”

True. However, what Liberals say vs. what they believe and how they act are very different things. In truth, Liberals just don’t like when Conservatives use generalizations against those groups who have been historically subjugated, treated unfairly, or are currently under attack, but Liberals are happy to use generalizations when they are in defense of those groups or attacking groups “in power.”

And for those Liberals who think you don’t use generalizations, let me just give you a few snippets from statements I’ve heard from Liberal friends (for ease of identifying the Liberal generalization, I’ve noted them in bold):

  • “That’s so typical of a man to think that women talk sh*t about each other behind their backs.”
  • White people just can’t understand how African Americans experience the world in the era of Trump.”
  • You can’t make generalizations.” (This is my favorite one because the irony is completely lost on Liberals that this statement is literally the broadest generalization it is possible to make. You are, in effect, saying you understand every single human being in the world to such an extent that you know you cannot make statements that lump any of them together.)

Whether these Liberal generalizations are correct or not is irrelevant. What is relevant is that Liberals regularly use generalizations when they serve the purpose of defending their ideology, but will just as regularly deny the validity of generalizations when they go against their ideology.

So if Liberals readily use generalizations, why do they deny their validity at the same time? Two reasons:

  1. Liberals have seen that throughout history, Conservatives have misused generalizations to subjugate, discriminate against, and oppress minorities. So rather than get into the nuanced argument of a generalization being correct but the application or underlying premise being incorrect, they will simply assert that all generalizations are incorrect by virtue of the fact that they are generalizations. Debate over.
  2. As discussed in my What is a Liberal post a few weeks back, Liberals’ beliefs are driven by only two factors — sympathy and a desire for egalitarianism. And although both factors have positive aspects associated with them, they each can cloud Liberals’ judgement as well. And in this case, their sympathy towards the plight of the aggrieved causes Liberals to incorrectly claim that one cannot credibly make generalizations about them.

Now that we’ve slogged through Conservatives’ and Liberals’ takes on and behavior towards generalizations, next week we can get to the meatiest topics — what generalizations are, why they can be used effectively in developing a worldview, and how they’re abused.

NEXT UP: What is a Generalization?, Part II