No Generalizations about Generalizations, Please

by A. Jay Adler on May 14, 2010

The other day over at Yaacov Lozowick’s Ruminations an interesting discussion ensued over several posts consequent to some superciliously obnoxious troll taking Yaacov to task, along with Anthony Julius, author of the new Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England, for making generalizations about English culture. As is often the case with generalizations, some people were for ‘em and some agin ‘em. Yaacov remained resolutely for ‘em, and put everyone on notice in closing that someday soon, he expects to generalize again. Let the coppers try and stop him.

Yaacov was right. Here’s why.

All generalizations are false.

And with that fallacy of self-refutation, we begin.

Probably even before the age of cultural sensitivity, well meaning mamas were sending their children out into the world, along with warnings about underwear and cleanliness, armored with a neighborly etiquette in the instruction, “Don’t generalize.” It’ll rot your teeth.

But why? Why not generalize? Generalizing is a fundamental activity of the human mind. We cannot think without generalizing. We cannot reason without generalizing. Inductive logic is generalization on steroids. You don’t buy your electronics from the back of vans parked in lots behind railroad tracks? Why? Because the goods or either stolen or nonfunctional? Don’t generalize, sweetheart.

Okay, you say, but that kind of generalizing isn’t what people are talking about when they’re talking about generalizing. It’s when we do it with, you know, people. Don’t generalize about people, sweetheart. Objects and situations (which, of course, are activated by people): generalizable. People: not generalizable.

The Universe as a Cosmic Man, with Vishnu at the base, Krishna and Radha at the top. Nepal, 17th century. Gouashe on cloth, 61 x41.

We all like to think we are unique individuals. At least, that’s the post-enlightenment party line. We may have human similarities, but few of us like it when someone pretends to have our number. Sometimes, it’s true, old married couples take a certain pleasure in it. She knows me like a book. I can’t put anything over that one. Or I might as well let him order for me. He knows just what I like. But – if you’ll pardon the expression – generally speaking, people wish to retain their sense of individuality, in part by remaining in some measure mysterious, always to some degree incalculable. To generalize is to calculate away the mystery of individuality, to rob a person, or so it seems, of the free will inherent in every human moment to be other than what she was before or what anyone predicts about her in a deduction inferred from some general truth.

“I am not a number!” Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner cried in protest back in the 60s. “I’m a man!”

Cultures – the people who belong to them – don’t like others to think they have their number either. And, of course, the history of cultural generalization, and the habit too often in practice, is negative. After all, that’s what anti-Semitism, to get back to Julius’s book, and other forms of racism are – negative generalization. To speak of negative generalization, however, and not speak a tautology, is to say that generalization is not by definition bad, but that it can be performed badly. Logically speaking, hasty generalization – generalizations made on the basis of insufficient data – and sweeping generalization – generalizations applied to too broad a class of subjects – are the most common causes of bad generalization. Julius’s book, I gather from the reviews (not having read it myself so far) concerns itself with the emotional, psychological, religious, and – there it is – cultural causes of anti-Semitism.

Interestingly, to praise a culture in generalization – they are an industrious, courageous and God worshipping people devoted to family and to upholding proud traditions – never seems to be a problem. I haven’t met the person yet who objected to his people being known as fierce warriors, or as disciplined and efficient or as gourmets or as resolutely independent of spirit. Live free or die, baby. It is only the negative descriptions of a culture that seem generally problematic, and in that matter, then, we are dealing more with psychology than reason. Of course, no one likes to have his faults pointed out to him. And the consequences of bad generalization about cultures, we know, can be enormously deadly.

As a matter of first principle, no generalization about a group applies with any logical necessity to a member of the group. That would be the fallacy of division. Texans, on the whole, may be more individualistic in the way they live their lives than Japanese, but that doesn’t preclude any Texan, by individual nature, from being pretty much a follower, or any Japanese from following the dictates of individual conscience or simple inclination over cultural practice and tradition. And you never know whom you’re meeting in the present encounter. On the other hand, the only Filipino you’ve ever met tells you nothing about Philippine culture. That would be the fallacy of composition – attributing to the whole the attributes of a part. One American car sucks, so every American car –. Hmn.

I’ll think of a different example later.

Of course, it's the same everywhere.

Maybe most resistant to the possibility of generalization about culture is the now deeply ingrained notion – the product of all that cultural sensitivity, which is not in itself a bad thing; I’m not on the side of those who attack it – that culture is somehow, in some terribly ill-defined way, logically sui generis. Culture is integral and identifiable, so that we may speak of French culture and Chinese Culture and Ghanaian culture, and not be speaking nonsense, yet it is indefinable and uncharacterizable.  This, of course, makes no sense. To be able to distinguish one culture from another, French culture from English culture, say – and you know the French and the English believe they’re different – means to make distinctions between them, and making distinctions involves offering affirmations of what a thing is and negations as to what it is not, and doing the same about that other thing across the way, so that mentally you can tell them apart and don’t confuse a chair for a convertible sofa or Marseilles for Manchester.

Those who would prohibit any kind of enunciation of general cultural characteristics may be demonstrating a kind of intellectual timidity in the face of the Zeitgeist, or they may be protesting against any notion of essentialism – that the French and the British are in any way essentially, as if to say genetically, one way or another. One needn’t believe this to believe, nonetheless, in general cultural characteristics. Otherwise, what does it mean to speak of an English culture? That like the German, it is simply the sum of the books and musical compositions produced, and particular athletic matches played, and social legislation passed and wars fought and traumas endured and crimes committed and the intellectual achievements wrested from nature – and that all these together cohere only because of a geographical boundary and a language, the latter of which might be substantially shared with other cultures? Surely, if not essentially so in some materially inherent sense, then existentially, cultural characteristics both evolve and are expressed in the amalgam of all these historic features and forces. In the absence of such characteristics, culture is reduced to a superficial pageant of colorful costumes and peculiar, but inexplicable, practices for Cinco de Mayo or the Chinese New Year.

Here is an anecdote to end. I am Jewish and, as I like to say, a New Yorker always, wherever I may live. Though as a child I was extremely shy and timid (no one who didn’t know me then remotely believes this now), I worked hard as a teen and young adult to overcome what was for me a disability. When Julia and I began visiting American Indian communities to work on our project, we were acutely aware not only of the history of conquest and cultural destruction, but of, for Native Americans, a not dissimilar experience in their encounters with non-Native academics, researchers, and journalists, who often have not used Natives well. Though we needed to be persistent in our attempts to gain access and cooperation, we were very deferential in our dealings with those we encountered, placing sensitivity and respect for their beliefs, wishes, and requests above any other priority.

When, after nearly a month on one reservation, we were to be scheduled for an appearance before the tribal council, the Chief’s assistant, who had befriended us (and who reads this blog) offered us advice on how we might best present ourselves before the council. His advice was wide-ranging, including recommendations on personal comportment.

“For instance, Jay,” he said, “ – you’re kind of aggressive….”


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