I recently had coffee with a gentleman who brought the issue of generalization to my attention. This man is an evangelical Christian, but doesn’t share all of the views that I attribute to evangelicals in my writing. I rather like this person. We don’t share the same fundamental views, but he is honest, consistent, and made a well-reasoned argument for the dangers of imposing generalizations on any given group. That discussion inspired me to carefully consider whether or not I approach my generalizations in an honest way, and to weigh the benefits and set-backs to making them in the first place.
When I write about Christian teachings, there are three words and two terms that I am always careful to use. The words are “majority,” “evangelical,” and “fundamentalist.” The terms are “traditional Christian doctrine,” and “literal interpretation.” By using these words and terms, I narrow my focus on a specific brand of Christianity. “Evangelical” and “fundamentalist” Christians who subscribe to a “literal interpretation” of scripture use “traditional Christian doctrine (also based on literal interpretation)” to justify doing whatever it is I’m writing about. By talking about the “majority” of these particular Christians, I give credence to the fact that not everybody in the group I have identified fits the generalization I have made. Language is limited, and in many ways ill equipped to express the entirety of a given idea. Given these limitations, I feel that those three words and two terms lend honesty, integrity, and full inclusion to my arguments.
Generalizations are both helpful and harmful. On one hand, they can provide context. By identifying defining characteristics or a unifying value system, you can shed light on a given group and help others to understand that group. On the other hand, you have to be very careful. If you make a generalization without qualifiers (ie: the word “majority”), you run the risk of offending people who don’t fit the generalization and feel attacked. This is a bad situation, and once it happens you have tripped over the thin line between generalization and stereotype. Sensitivity is key, but no matter how careful you are, there will always be people who take offence because they failed to read attentively. Despite using qualifiers to clarify my points, I am sometimes approached by people who missed that part and got angry anyway. I once made a statement that I knew would be particularly controversial, so I followed it with “I know this is bound to offend, so allow me to clarify …” Despite my clarification, I received a message from somebody telling me that I had made an offensive remark, “and here’s why” (obviously having glossed over the part where I admitted offence and explained the context behind it). You have to handle these situations with sensitivity, but you get used to it. When you write on controversial issues, it’s just part of the job.
Every time I sit down to write, I carefully weigh my words. The arguments that I make are cultural, and cultural arguments require generalization. I have no problem with this as long as I am careful to consistently use qualifiers that legitimize the argument with honesty and credibility. If ever I am accused of stereotyping, and I find myself unable to defend against the accusation, then I will be accountable for my failure to weigh my words properly. Generalization is a very effective tool that is only as moral as the person employing it. Use it, but use it with care. With all conversational tools that wield tremendous power, we must work not to confuse and divide, but to understand and unify.