We all use them, they can be useful tools to help humans understand one another or our experiences.
Sometimes generalizations might help us relate to certain ethnic groups or look at a trend in society.
While generalizations are often based in a real trait or trend, stating a generalization as broad statements is not useful. It does not allow for an open mind, it closes us to possibilities – group defined, mind set, move on.
I recently had someone in my house making generalizations about an ethnic group.
The generalization may have been based in facts and statistics, however, a member of this particular ethnic group was in the house at the same time, and therefore I found it disrespectful and asked the person to stop, which he did.
It made me think about how sometimes there is a fine line to being politically correct and being considerate or sensitive. This person may have thought I was trying to be politically correct, but I was trying to be respectful. The conversation did not have to stop but it did need to stop using a racist generalization.
It is one thing to say something and identify it as a generalization like: Nordic skiing is a fairly popular sport in many Scandinavian cultures or many blue-collar construction workers have lower education levels than white-collar workers.
While – in general – these may be true statements (I’m not saying they are, I just wanted to use an example not based on race), but they allow us to understand there are also exceptions – there are informed and educated blue-collar workers and Scandinavians who don’t cross-country ski. One of these statements made into a blanket generalization would be something like: Blue-collar construction workers swear a lot and aren’t very educated.
If you are a blue-collar construction worker you will probably be offended by a statement negatively generalizing about blue-collar construction workers in this way. Of course, even if you do fit the profile, you would likely find this offensive, as it just assumes things about you based on your job, and this is a gross oversimplification of who you are or why you do what you do. It dismisses you as a person.
So why not identify what you are saying as a tendency but allow for exceptions and individuality. If we want to be able to identify trends or address something which might need to be addressed, like a social problem or perhaps working on blue-collar education levels, we need to talk about them, but do we need to be disrespectful when we do?
It’s not about being politically correct sometimes, it’s about not being a jerk.
No one wants to be thrown into a group and spoken about as though they have no individuality and are being judged solely on their job/race/religion/whatever.
Just like saying all hockey players are bullies, you can not and should not make statements which dismiss people’s individuality.
Or go ahead, generalize away and then others will probable be generalizing about you right back (perhaps as a member of the privileged white middle class having never experienced direct discrimination based on a generalization?).
When we begin to be more civil and open-minded in our conversations we may be more productive.