Making Generalizations

By JIMMY CONBOY

Hi, I’m Jimmy. A straight, white male from a suburb of New Jersey.

My profile is very well-represented at Middlebury, and you may feel that my a perspective like mine does not need more representation in our paper. When I started to write this piece, I thought that I could divorce my profile from my perspective, and I found that, in practice, this was extremely difficult. With this in mind, I hope what I write draws as minimally as possible from my personal profile and approaches a more universal understanding. I hope this piece comes from a place of humanity: this distinction is what I identify with first and foremost.

 I want to talk about generalizations. We generalize by taking inferences from specific cases and applying them to everything that fits that case. Sometimes, generalizations are spot-on: physicists are smart, sprinters are fast, musicians are musical. Generalizations unite large numbers of people, often through common characteristics, and help us better understand them as a group. Why do the generalizations I mention hold true in nearly all cases? Because having certain qualities is essentially a precondition to being certain things. One cannot obtain a PhD in Physics without a high capacity for quantitative and theoretical reasoning, nor can one be an Olympic sprinter without having the genetics and superior training to make one faster than everybody else.

But we can generalize where it is not appropriate. This happens by way of taking an insufficient number of specific cases and creating a generalization out of them. These types of generalizations are typically self-serving. They are not true most of the time, but they are true in enough cases so that those with a similar perspective will believe them, and espouse the same generalization. Liberals who call conservatives immigrant-haters and conservatives who call liberals snowflakes have made generalizations about huge groups of people that are largely false.

These types of generalizations tend to develop as the gulf between those with whom we disagree widens. Needless to say, they are everywhere at Middlebury. By the logic of these generalizations, it makes perfect sense to avoid certain people altogether. If I believe in a generalization that says a certain group of people are mean, why would I want to meet them, talk to them, or understand them? I already know all I need to know about them – they are mean, and I want to avoid mean people.

The problem with making such a generalization at Middlebury is that there is no group of students to which you could ascribe a characteristic which should preclude the possibility of understanding them on an individual level. You may disagree strongly with the beliefs or actions of a group of people, but I don’t believe that there is any group at Middlebury not worthy of understanding. 

I understand that, on a larger scale, this argument may sound too accommodating, too permissive. There are groups of people in the world that, regardless of the individuality of their members, unequivocally spread violence and hate. Should we extend his argument to ISIS, the KKK, and Neo-Nazis, or more generally people that commit terrible crimes?

There is also the reality that racism, sexism, homophobia, and discrimination of all kinds still exist everywhere. Obviously, in this respect I am writing from a compromised perspective: I don’t understand the lived experiences of those who are discriminated themselves. It must sound naive to recommend that you shouldn’t generalize the same people who constantly generalize you, and cause you pain. But is it better to deflect these generalizations towards other members of our community, or share the pain of being generalized so that it can be understood and ameliorated at Middlebury? 

We are individuals first. We are more than any characteristic that one could identify in a single word: gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, politics. If you decide to generalize a group of people based on any of these characteristics, take a moment and consider whether this was, in hindsight, a careful judgement or an easy one. You may find that in most cases we simply did not desire to know more about the people in that group, so we judged them and moved on. The practice, which I will certainly admit to, causes a lack of understanding of the people who form our community.

 I think that the solution to this lack of understanding lies in getting to know people as individuals, and refraining from making generalizations about groups of people, be they friend groups, athletic groups, clubs, political groups, etc. You do not have to be friends with everyone, but we are compelled to give everyone the respect and understanding they deserve as a member of this community.

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Making Generalizations