Please Do Generalize

When I was in primary school and we were given a short story to analyze, I remember that one of the rules-of-thumb was that “we shouldn’t generalize”. Something might appear to be so and so but we could never therefore conclude that it would continue to be so – or that it wasn’t just a result of complete randomness.

If the rest of the world has a point in their accusations against the West that we have gone decadent and overly individualistic then this mantra ‘don’t generalize’ is evidence thereof. And it’s those damn hippies at work again.

In human history, the idea that generalizations are bad, is a very recent one. And probably more or less confined to the Western cultural hemisphere. Hopefully it is also going to be temporary.

When I meet and speak to especially young people today, their first line of defense against ideas that they don’t like or understand is that ‘we shouldn’t generalize’. It doesn’t matter what logic you bring to the table or what evidence you have. You just should not generalize, period.

Everybody generalizes – all the time. It would not be possible to stay sane without generalizing. Our brains are hardwired to filter off all the input that is generic and put it into manageable boxes. All the stuff that happens and changes all the time but stays within a defined space such as ‘a car driving on a long stretch of asphalt’ will not send me into a fit of panic because I this time I don’t have to wonder ‘how the hell is this thing moving and why is coming so close to me, I wonder if it is dangerous…’ Generally speaking I can just skip straight to the conclusion of ‘right, here we have … traffic’. And then get on with my day.

See how generalizing just saved me a lot of trouble?

The problem with the mantra ‘don’t generalize’ is that it leaves everyone as an individual – and nothing else. All instances are precious unique snowflakes that never will, nor ever could happen again in any conceivable universe. No history. No context. No certainty. Everything is in flux and open to interpretation. Any interpretation. We might have been friends yesterday but today is another day and we are just going to have to see how what happens.

I say, go ahead and generalize. Don’t let anyone tell you that no conclusions based on the past have any relevance to the future. If you think you see a pattern in the world, tell me. I might agree. I might disagree. But patterns are interesting and useful. So go ahead and be a bloody human.