The Generation of Generalization
So I heard a rumor that a teacher at a local school (I’m being deliberately vague) is making broad judgments, during class, about parents and people who vote for a particular presidential candidate. We all really like this teacher, and to some extent I don’t even disagree with their opinion. And yet I am very unsettled by this.
I’ve been asking myself why it bothers me so much.
I think it’s because it feels like updated McCarthyism.
And because, especially when it’s passed down from a teacher to students, it is a form of thought police, stifling disagreement, discouraging debate, exchanging critical thinking for mere intellectual fascism.
And because the pet error of our generation is the insistence that disagreement equals stupidity. More than that, disagreement may even represent a sort of dangerous, idiot evil that needs to be put down by force, if necessary.
We’ve all bought into it by degrees— the generation of generalization. We pride ourselves in holding two entirely contradictory ideas in our heads: “bigotry is bad” and “all X people are Y”.
It can manifest in endless ways:
All Trump voters are racist idiots.
Liberals are all intellectually-dishonest cowards.
White people ignore police brutality.
Black people riot and loot.
Christians are anti-science haters.
Nickelback listeners are tasteless rubes.
Did that last one make you smile? Does it seem OK to generalize based on musical taste? Like some generalizations are harmless?
That’s pretty sad. The ugliness of generalization– of bigotry– is fractal. It’s the same vicious shape no matter how small and seemingly harmless we reduce it.
It’s a rotten, invasive little seed of prejudice that can’t be planted in just one corner of our intellectual garden. It takes over. It taints, then becomes the entire garden, obliterating all other consideration.
We’ve grown accustomed to the idea that the easiest way to feel big is to stand on someone else. We think it’s OK, because we don’t make it a person, we make it some generalized group or demographic or voting block or sexual orientation or cultural category.
We think that judging a person is evil. But judging people– based entirely on superficial group affiliation– is just fine.
Maybe even our moral duty.
In our world, people aren’t different from us because they’ve had different life experiences that have formed alternate views and opinions.
They’re different because they’re stupid, and immoral, and dangerous. Period.
I don’t want to be misconstrued on one thing, however: People can be wrong. Their life experiences may have fostered perceptions and approaches and attitudes that may indeed be completely mistaken, inaccurate, and even destructive. But it’s the grand ego of our generation to insist, first and foremost, that difference equals stupidity. Nothing less, and absolutely, positively nothing more.
So that, I think, is what bothers me about a teacher making broad, categorical judgments about “everyone who votes for X”. Not because I like X, but because it perpetuates an ugliness that is already way too prevalent. Personally, I think this mentality— the generation of generalization, the doublethink that bigotry is only bad if it’s bigotry against the wrong people— is a much, much bigger threat to society than any presidential candidate could ever be.