What’s So Bad About Generalizations?

Let’s call this the American Culture Series. It will be four parts, posed in the title as questions, and each one will address something that as a philosopher I find strange about American culture. Then I will explore it from the perspective of my job (and obsession) as a writer and publisher. And now we’ll dive right in.

I find it weird that we can get in trouble in modern America for making generalizations.*

As a writer, I use generalizations every day. I find them extremely important for my job, and I bet you do too. But these days, I find my ability and my right to make generalizations greatly impeded when individual Americans increasingly assert their right to shout a contradictory opinion, lifestyle, or example at me. It’s not the opinion, lifestyle, or example that’s the problem, it’s the venom thrown at people for making generalizations. Here’s the thing about generalizations: They’re okay. They’re functional, practical, and even necessary. They’re a tool, which we can use in positive ways to make sense of the world, set expectations, and move forward (and, yes, can use in negative ways, too, but they are just the tool). They’re not the end-all be-all, but they are part of a healthy life and society. So, someone called me a boy because my hair was short. (This used to happen to me all the time.) I correct them, I move on. Next time they have a broader scope, but I can’t blame them for using a nearly universal hair cut to judge me a boy. And I certainly don’t have to let it define me, just as they don’t have to let one example throw off their whole perception of male and female haircuts. Still, generallymen have shorter hair, women have longer hair. It’s called a “generalization” and not an “absolute” because there are always outliers, always exceptions. Just as, in the future, that generalization may turn on its head and become the opposite: generalizations are fluid.

Just write something. An essay or opinion piece, a blog. And then evaluate each sentence for generalizations. It’s replete, isn’t it? That’s cuz it’s a survival skill, one that is adapted right into our system to help us make sense of our world.

In writing, we need to be able to make generalizations so that we can speak to the audience that we intend to. If my novel is meant most specifically for Middle Grades, it’s really best to keep the language clean and not strongly consider that less-than-one-per-cent of seventh graders whose parents believe they should have early exposure to the f-bomb. I’m not a bad person, or even a bad writer, for writing children who are healthy and innocent, girls who like princesses and ponies, or small towns that have tracks with two sides. Sure, it’s great to jump up and surprise (aka. wake up) your reader every now and again, but both the surprises and the satire (or cliches) are ways to challenge the reader with your writing. You can’t accomplish anything if you’ve already lost them from pure contrariness. What rings truest to readers is a combination of like 90 per cent what is expected and 10 per cent the wow factor. Even with characters, the best of them are mostly what we recognize with a good dose of the unexpected.

In designing books, we need to be able to make generalizations so that a significant amount of people will pick up our books (both physically and virtually) and fork out money to take them home. And also enjoy them and be effortlessly immersed in them. This is why getting professionals on board is so important; they know what the general public likes and they can (if they’re any good) hit that nail on the head. What is the current industry standard? What speaks to middle aged women in the twenty-first century? What quality and qualities are people expecting from a mystery novel, these days? Sure, Bob Sherborne in Topeka, Kansas really loves holographic covers, but most everyone else is tuned into and expecting the retro 80s style. (I just completely made that up, by the way. Please don’t make your mystery cover 80s-style based on my erroneous example. And don’t go looking for Bob with your holographic PI; he doesn’t exist.)

In marketing, we need to be able to make generalizations so that we can build an audience and sell that book. Marketing is replete with generalizations. You should do A because people like A, because A makes them feel safe, or happy, or affirmed, because people will identify with A, will buy A, will remember A. Okey doke. Then we’ll do it. But what about Cindy Lou Who?! She won’t buy it! In fact it will bring up horrible childhood memories of an incident with a roast beast! Sorry, Cindy Lou. Maybe you should get counseling.

There are times when we mean to reach out to counter-cultures, and that’s when we write, design, and market niche fiction. There are times when we mean to expose the general public to a counter-culture. That’s when we write, design, and market for generalizations and then slip in that ten per cent of challenging material.

In publishing, we need to be able to make generalizations to function at the computer and in the industry. We subscribe to magazines that give us sweeping swaths of what’s up in publishing, what’s up in the writing world. We take that info, we churn it around in our little brains, and then we do what we deem best. When I’m deciding between self- and traditional publishing, for example, I don’t want to consider that one person who did it the other way and succeeded (although this is very tempting), I want to know how the majority of people succeeded. Then, when my computer glitches while I am uploading a PDF, I need to start first with the most common solution to that Microsoft problem, not with what one dude in Portugal did that worked only for him.

And in all the little ways, we need to be free to generalize so that we can pick the best equipment and tools, can make a large, solid platform, and can identify with our reader.

One of the reasons I think I make a good writer is that I have great (but far from infallible) cultural discernment. This is important to writers because writers need to 1) use the culture to connect to the reader, then 2) connect the reader to their culture, then 3) expose the culture to the reader. This is one of the most powerful and important aspects of writing (and art). Writers help define and change culture with this amazing power to clarify, expose, and enlighten. (Clearly, I’ve never bought into the passive writer idea, or the “I just write to write” thing.) By blasting writers (and other people) for making generalizations, we are taking from them one of their greatest tools to effect change and betterment, and ironically, cutting off at the knees their ability to further the cause of the disenfranchised, the minority, the weak, the outliers.

In conclusion, generalizations are not the same thing as persecution, and they are only “judging” in the most basic sense. We need them in our lives, we need them in our society, we need them to work. So let’s stop attacking generalizations (and give people a break) and deal with what really matters to us as an individualist society: basic freedoms, the pursuit of happiness, and equality. So it’s not about the generalization at all. Generalizing is a tool, and we can use it for good or for bad. Let’s not villainize the tool, let’s wield it properly, responsibly, for the general good.




*Let’s start at the beginning. For much of human history–really almost all of it–humans were (and are) a communal animal. Now, we can take that fact for granted, but let me just skip to the punch line here; as an individualistic society–perhaps the most individualistic society in history–we can not appreciate what that even means, let alone how it really functions or why it might be a good thing. Being communal versus individualistic involves a different basic mindset about a person in relation to those around them, and our mindsets are completely different from most of the world on this one. Of course, we are slowly infecting the rest of the world with our assertive individuality… which is maybe why it’s good to explore this concept now.

But I’ll leave you with those thoughts and concentrate on one aspect of it. In America, it has grown increasingly faux pas to make generalizations. Even today, many of you will be either frustrated at someone else for making a generalization or will berate someone else for doing it. So what’s so wrong with making generalizations?

In our collective mindset, it is bad to make generalizations because 1) we assert the importance and autonomy of every member of our society, 2) we want each and every voice to be heard, every opinion to count, 3) we like justice to work even to the smallest of cases, the most concentrated of circumstances, and 4) we love to be validated and hate to be ignored.

Generalizations are, at their most basic, a survival tool. They are necessary for everything from law to scientific advances to marketing to medicine. Without a history of generalizations, we couldn’t have advanced to where we are as a species. Without generalizations, we couldn’t make it through the day. What do I mean by that? It is our instinct to base current decisions on our empirical history: what we experience, our mind turns into categories and generalizations that we can work with: while driving a car, while getting ready for work, while making dinner. Where would science and social science be without generalizations? There is a point in every experiment or trial where we say, “Enough is enough. A standard has been met. This population behaves this way.” Then, the needs and desires of the larger number are met. Quite utilitarian.

At best, a communal society does a better job at taking care of its outliers, like the widowed and orphaned and elderly. It can embrace traditions as an important part of life. It remains static, or stable, predictable and secure, and is not always changing with the newest thing. It can have less crime, less vice, less loneliness, less stress, and more connection and support.

At its worst, a communal society can devolve into mobs, can commit great crimes and even genocides through a sheep mentality. The “crowd principle” would seem to thrive in a communal society. It can harbor restrictive laws, unhappy people, and a lack of equality and rights which can lead to slavery and other hierarchies and class systems. (Of course, you have to remember, you read all those paragraphs through an individualistic lens.)

Perhaps the best solution, then, is a mixture of the individual with the community, and a mix of functional generalizations with a compassion and understanding of exceptions.


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