50 minus 8: Generalising about generalising

Posted: 9 August 2014 in internet, life, don't talk to me about life, politics, world, writing
Tags: , ,

It’s tempting to generalise about things. It’s comforting, even. Also, dangerous as hell.

All MPs are on the take. All benefits claimants are scroungers. Furthermore, all MPs who wrongly claimed expenses were doing so fraudulently, and all mistakes on benefits claims are made by those favourite scapegoats of the right wing press: the benefit cheat.

Or: MPs followed the law, in most cases, and those that weren’t charged with criminal offences made honest mistakes, paid back any money mistakenly claimed and are paragons of virtue. Similarly, it’s perfectly understandable that with the confusing and inefficient benefits system, claimants sometimes make errors, so there’s never ever anyone cheating on their benefits.

All of the above is pure, unfettered, unmitigated crap.

And yet, depending upon the political view held by an observer (hardly an unbiased observer in most cases) one of more of the above generalisations, at least one of the above extreme positions, is actually believed.

Let’s have some more. All Tories are scum, not a caring one among the bastards. And all Lib Dems are spineless immoral toerags who wouldn’t know a principle if it jumped up and bit them. And all socialists want control of your lives, 99% tax rates and can’t be trusted to manage a shop, let alone an economy. Oh, and all UKIP supporters are racists, while all Green party supporters are naiveté personified .

Again, all pure unfettered, unmitigated crap.

Oh, but let’s not limit it to domestic politics. By no means; all American right wingers are misogynistic racist thugs, and all Democrats can’t be trusted with the nation’s security. Oh, and every Christian is either a nonce or is covering up for them, you can’t trust Jews because of course they support Israel unquestionably and all Moslems want you dead.

Once again, pure unfettered, unmitigated crap.

It’s truly astonishing to me how many otherwise sensible people take an example, often take more than one example to be fair, and extrapolate those to the entire population under discussion.

I’d love to be able to say that it’s only the extreme cases that rely upon generalisations, but it’s not; it’s prevalent in discussion to the point that it’s rare to engage in conversation where at least one of the arguments doesn’t rest upon a generalisation. I can’t think how many debates I’ve had with people over the past couple of years where the extreme position has been the fundamental basis of their position. And it’s been even worse the past couple of weeks, what with Israel’s military attack on Gaza, after and during which anyone who doesn’t call for the destruction of Israel apparently supports baby killing, and those who don’t agree with the military action are apparently ok with all the Jews being killed. (c.f. unmitigated crap, above.)

(Yes, I know, I know – I’ve said there may well be a full post on that, and there still may be. I’ve drafted, redrafted, written and rewritten the post a half dozen times and I’m still unsure whether or not I’ll post it.)

The extreme positions taken by some, by many online it sometimes seems, bothers me. And it worries me. Because… and this is where I tread carefully, you end up with the “not ALL men” responses.

“Not ALL men” is a comment that gets thrown back at anyone who tries to explain why women feel afraid of men; I’ve felt the impulse to respond that way myself and it’s only really because I have intelligent – and understanding – women friends who’ve explained to me in detail why such a comment is not only inappropriate but wildly so.

But yeah, I sometimes want to respond “not ALL Tories” are unfeeling, uncaring loathesome specimens, “not ALL Lib Dems” are craven cowards, “not ALL American right wingers” decry equal marriage. It’s hard not to, especially when you’re one of the people (none of the above in this paragraph, to be fair) who’s being unfairly traduced.

Whatever happened to nuance? Have we taken the twenty-four hour news cycle to which we demand politicians answer and appropriated it to ourselves? OK, I accept that in the most part, people want simple yes/no solutions to complicated problems. In short, people want to know who’s the goodie and who’s the baddie.

Well, people are neither the one nor the other.

In that wonderful TV programme, The West Wing, at one point, the President says:

Every once in a while, every once in a while, there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts.

Thing is, even then, even when body counts are involved, it’s usually too simple to say there’s an absolute right or an absolute wrong.

And for the rest of the time, why the hell not accept that you just might not know enough to talk knowledgeably about a subject? In fact, if you’re sure there is an absolute right, or an equally absolute wrong, and that your generalising merely emphasises that fact, you’ve just proved to me that you don’t know enough.

So either learn some more about it or sit in the corner and let the grown ups talk for a while.

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