Generally Speaking…

There is both a certain danger and a necessity in making generalizations. There are certain people who tend to miss that point at both ends of the spectrum. This tends to make communication rather difficult at times.

By the way, did you happen to notice that all of the above three sentences are in themselves unsubstantiated generalizations?

Let me toss out a few more:

  • Professors usually to wear eye glasses.
  • Peugeots are prone to electrical problems.
  • Kids who grow up in ghettos often get involved in a criminal underground economy.
  • Children who move between different countries and cultures during their school years tend to develop a stronger sense of empathy than those who remain in one place during those years.
  • Many Muslim women are victims of domestic violence.
  • Many Eastern European women are prostitutes.
  • Very few people die at over 100 years old.

All of those generalizations tend to hold true to one extent or another in everyday life. To deny the evidence in support of any of those propositions is to stick one’s head in the sand. But likewise, to base one’s evaluation of any given individual on such facts is blatantly stupid. Let’s analyze each of them more specifically, in reverse order.

Burns 100The last bullet point there was part of a quip from the sharp elder comic George Burns once his own age got up into triple digits: “If you live to be one hundred, you’ve got it made. Very few people die past that age.”

It ruins a good joke when you have to explain it, but I’ll do so anyway: He was equivocating on purpose. When we say that few people die at over 100, what we generally mean is that the vast majority of the population still tends to die much earlier than that. This does not mean that those who live to over a hundred are less likely to die within the next ten years than those who are in their 80s or 90s. Actually the opposite is very much the case, and Burns knew that only too well. He knew his body didn’t work as well as it used to and it wasn’t going to last forever. Another of his memorable quotes is, “Everything that goes up must come down. But there comes a time when not everything that’s down can come up.” This may or may not be related to his earlier observation that “Sex at age 90 is like trying to shoot pool with a rope.” But I can still enjoy his joking attempts to deny his mortality, considering the fundamental honesty behind it. I don’t, however, respect the way other people equivocate in less fundamentally honest ways on the significance of facts regarding human societies.

That would go for the case of associating Eastern European women with prostitution. When we say that “many are prostitutes”, the truth of the matter is that among the sex workers of the western world, a disproportionate number of them do come from formerly Communist countries in the eastern part of Europe, which is still desperately struggling to fight its way out to the economic shambles left after the collapse of their variations on Marxist economics, and to overcome the kleptocracies which have folllowed. The fate of these working girls has become a cliché of American television drama of the past decade or two, and it can also be seen on the streets of Helsinki and many other cosmopolitan cities (or so “they” tell me; I haven’t done any first-hand investigation into the matter).  There is nothing to be gained in denying that this is happening.

There are three potential applications for this information: For those who agree with Raskolnikov’s condemnation of the institution of prostitution in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, or who are otherwise concerned about the trafficking of young women into “first world” brothels, knowing that a major concentration of these evils takes place in Eastern Europe can be strategically important in the process of fighting against them. Then using the same sort of thinking somewhat to the opposite intent, sexual predators who are shopping around to get the biggest “bang for their buck” might focus their acquisition efforts on women from that part of the world in order to increase their odds of success. But the worst sort of application to put this sort of information to is to start categorizing all women from these former Communist countries as suspected prostitutes. The offensiveness and inaccuracy of such a generalization cannot be over-emphasized. If you don’t intuitively see the problem with that sort of thinking I’m not sure what can be done to help you.

The same applies to many generalizations about Muslims, including the one that their women tend to get beaten: Just as it is true that many women from Eastern Europe end up becoming prostitutes, it is true that many women in Muslim homes end up getting beaten by their husbands or other male authority figures. In neither case do we need much “sociological imagination” to find a cause and effect relationship between the status in question and the problem being manifest: We can easily see how intense economic pressures combined with a cultural trends towards the sexual objectification of women could lead to many women from Eastern Europe getting trapped in a life of prostitution; and we can easily see how a religious emphasis on cultural conservatism for its own sake ––maintaining Arabic social norms from 1400 years ago as manifestations of “God’s eternal will” for mankind –– combined with an understanding that women rightfully need to be kept in submission to men, would lead to a higher risk of women being physically abused. It would even be fair to concentrate efforts on reducing spouse abuse in general on women from particularly culturally conservative Muslim communities. Denying problems there is in no one but the abusers’ interest. But it is certainly not acceptable to label all Muslim husbands as suspected wife-beaters or to label all Muslim wives as likely victims of abuse.

Resisting this “because you’re X, you must also be Y” urge, even while digging out new and unrecognized connections between the factors X and Y in question, is an on-going challenge in social sciences in general. The whole point in studying human behavior –– on an individual level, on a micro-communal level, on a macro-communal level and/or from a historical perspective –– is to identify risk factors in order to avoid or overcome them, while at the same time recognizing the “evitability” of all such risks. We can choose what we do with our lives; we can choose how we weak handplay the cards we are dealt. Like Poker, life in general involves a degree of “luck,” but it is largely a matter of skill. Yet in either case for someone to a claim that random factors of “the luck of the draw” are irrelevant to the game merely shows that the person making such a claim has no understanding of how the game works.

In concrete terms I have seen this over the course of the summer in the little research project I’ve been working on with alumni from the schools I’ve been teaching at for the past decade and some. In one sense or another almost all of these young people can be labelled as “multi-cultural,” meaning that their up-bringing has reflected a mix of various “cultural” –– national, regional, linguistic and/or religious ––traditions. This multi-cultural up-bringing is the hand that each of them has been dealt. It inevitably has a direct effect on enabling them to make certain sorts of choices and preventing them from making others. My research has repeated the findings of many others in this field in demonstrating that one of the strongest effects of such multi-cultural childhood experiences, particularly in terms of exposure to a vast variety of traditions and lifestyles through global mobility, is that the young people in question develop a broader human perspective: They become much more capable of “putting themselves in the other person’s shoes” than others who lack their range of experience in this matter.

This is as much of a “fact” as any of the social sciences are capable of producing. It provides particularly useful information for analyzing what sort of parameters the young people in question are making their decisions in. It shows how social cause and effect work in this sort of context. It does not, however, determine what sorts of careers these young people are ultimately suited for, nor does it conclusively define the character of any given young person whom I have been speaking with on the matter. Either to deny the factuality of this dynamic or to attempt to re-state it in a more deterministic fashion would be a grave mistake.

This applies to all general statements regarding human identities and interaction, including those regarding places like Florida where the legal system now seems to have declared open season for the killing of young African-American men. The facts of the matter, sociologically speaking, are that darker skinned residents of that state, and of the United States in general, are far more likely to have grown up with reduced economic opportunities compared with their lighter-skinned “peers”. As with all sociological facts, there are vast numbers of exceptions to the general rule on this, but the correlation between skin color and poverty is more than strong enough to make it register as a significant social dynamic. Likewise the correlation between being raised in poverty and “alternative economic activity” –– a.k.a. “a life of crime” –– is quite well established, with the same qualifications applying. On this basis it is not entirely irrational for Floridian white people to have a certain degree of fear of the local black population. This in turn has been used to justify the actions of particular white men (struggling with their own personal insecurities) such as George Zimmerman and Michel Dunn, considering young black men like Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis to be a such a serious threat that, when these black boys commit such heinous crimes as walking through the wrong neighborhood late at night or playing a car stereo too loud at a gas station, the rational course of action for the white man is to take out a gun and kill them.

Does this sort of thinking have a basis in fact? To the extent that the information they base their stereotypes on is factual, yes, it does. Does that make it morally justifiable? Of course not. Am I justified in considering Floridian culture in general to be morally depraved on this basis? That is a more complicated question, but I am perfectly at peace with myself in joining Stevie Wonder in boycotting the state until further notice, whether or not it makes any difference.

The issue here is that, besides the problems inherent in making generalizations in general, there is a matter of using these generalizations as a basis for denying the basic value of some people as people. If we look at people primarily in terms of abstract general categories we can put them into –– such as “highly skilled,” “extremely punctual,” “rather introverted/extroverted,” “emotionally (un)stable,” “(un)trustworthy,” “aggression prone” or “creative” even –– and if looking at them in terms of those characteristics keeps us from seeing them as human beings with whom we share an certain basic God-given essence (whether or not you take that literally), regardless of how factually well-founded those general categories are, we’re in morally dangerous territory.

In this sense people are not like cars. Regardless of how emotionally attached to their vehicles some people get, our fellow human beings still belong in a different category from our beloved machines. Thus there is much less moral risk involved in pointing out general characteristics of particular sorts of automobiles than there is in itemizing general characteristics of particular sorts of people. In terms of empirical evidence it may be less true to say that Peugeots are prone to electrical problems than to say that the Irish are prone to drinking problems, or that the Finns suffer from repressed emotions; but I am still more comfortable speaking in generalities about the former, because there is less of a risk of making assumptions against any individual’s human value on such a basis.

The car with which I learned about Peugeots' propensity to have electrical problems.

The car with which I learned about Peugeots’ propensity to have electrical problems.

That being said, valid generalizations, with the proper level of scientific caution and moral restraint included, should not be rejected out of hand as de-humanizing. To deny that some combination of genetic factors, religious influences, environmental restraints and patterns of socialization –– “culture” in the broadest sense of the word –– shapes who we are as individuals in some validly generalizable ways, for fear of these generalizations being used as a means of de-humanizing others, tosses out whole nurseries full of babies together with the bath water. Not only are these generalizations frequently useful in terms of diagnosing the cause of social malfunctions, thus enabling us to deal with them more effectively; when understood in context they really shouldn’t be considered a threat to individual integrity or human value. When someone uses a sociological or cultural-anthropological generalization as a means of de-humanizing someone else whom he considers to be significantly “other” than himself, it is not necessarily that the generalization lacks factual legitimacy so much as that the person utilizing the generalizations in such an abusive way lacks moral integrity.

Prof. Ken Robinson: glasses.

Prof. Ken Robinson: glasses

I could go through the ways in which this applies to all of the above-mentioned generalizations, but let me instead skip forward to the first item in my bullet-pointed generalizations at the beginning of this essay: Professors tend to wear eye glasses. This is a rather trivial observation, but in general I believe it holds true. Of course there are exceptions: The new rector of the University of Helsinki, whom I met for the first time a couple weeks ago, needed no optical assistance in reading his remarks to a visiting delegation or looking people in the eye while chatting at the reception which followed. Well over half of the professors I have ever met, however, lack such physical capabilities. There are in fact valid cause-and-effect reasons for this phenomenon. Professors in general tend to be 1) older academics, 2) selected on the basis of extensive, eye-straining reading and writing work, and 3) less prone to “real life” interaction than analytic speculation. In terms of the first two factors I speak in part from personal experience: as I work my way up into higher academic status from being a mere high school teacher with a master’s towards a doctorate and maybe thereafter professorship, I find that both the age that is creeping up on me all the time and the text work which I must do in the process make reading glasses ever more of a necessity for me. I will never make the professor level without needing glasses quite badly. In terms of the third factor here, I would site Sir Ken Robinson’s famous first TED Talk as evidence of the claim that professors tend to be socially awkward, and I appeal to my readers’ broad cultural experience as evidence of the general correlation between wearing eye glasses and feeling socially awkward. As I am being partially tongue-in-cheek here I don’t think any further evidence is necessary.

Rector Jukka Kola: no glasses

Rector Jukka Kola: no glasses

The reason that this observation is not particularly well-published, I believe, is not that it fails to hold true, or that the statistical likelihood of professors to wear glasses can be written off as a coincidence; but rather that professors are not particularly proud of this fact and beyond that it lacks functional relevance. If there were some contract negotiations for professors in which optometric services were being considered as a work-related expense, this issue might have some practical relevance, but I’ve never heard of such a thing happening. What is more likely is for professors to be critiqued for generally being old, out of touch and selected according to particularly abstract criteria, with a tendency to wear glasses as a potential marker of any of the three. Since professors generally don’t care to have attention called to these factors, and since professors are the gate-keepers as to what gets published and what doesn’t in the field of social sciences in general, it is unlikely you will find any academic literature on the subject.

But regardless of all that, what harm is there really in noting that professors tend to wear glasses? If we accept the generalized image that professors tend to be rather funny old people in general, and that they are no less valuable as people for their eccentricities, is there really any further risk in making a general observation about their need for glasses? I wouldn’t think so. The risk comes when the human value of “the other” is genuinely being called into question, and when their right to participate in society and even their right to live are being seriously questioned. That isn’t about to happen on the basis of professors wearing glasses. The greatest risk professors as such tend to face, as Ken Robinson points out, is not being invited to dinner parties, and their eye glasses really have nothing to do with that.

So what should I say in closing? How can I generally sum up these generalizations? I hope that academics in general continue to recognize the general value, together with the general limitations, of speaking in general terms. In more specific terms, I hope that the professor whose general misconceptions I’ve been shaking my head at for the past couple weeks reads this someday and recognizes its implications in terms of his theories’ lack of viability… someday… but not yet. Beyond that I hope that the students I am teaching, my fellow university students and my readers here can all recognize that, in spite of my obnoxious manner at times (as defined by certain cultural norms) and my tendency to slip into abstract generalities at other times, I really do mean well, and I really do respect each of them as significant individuals… at least in a general sort of way.


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Filed under Education, Epistemology, Ethics, Respectability, Tolerance

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