From an important perspective, there are three kinds of generalizations. One reflects a minimal personal observation. One reflects coincidental norms. One reflects systemic behaviors. Why make a distinction? Because not all issues can be discussed on the macro or individual level. But how can it be okay to include people that you have never met in your judgments? Let’s look at three statements about one large group of people.
‘Women[‘s interests] are superficial.’
‘Women are liars.’
‘Women are oppressed.’
All three are broad, sweeping statements targeting literally billions of people from countless back grounds. By the time I have met and gotten to know the first hundred thousand of them, the rest will have died of old age. Why would I say any of these things about people who, from an arguably practical perspective, will never exist in my life?
‘Women are superficial.’ Are the minds of all people identifying as women every where filled with superficial interests and only superficial interests? No way. So why would some one say such a thing? Are they worried that women are genetically predisposed to this mind set? May be. Is their concern that women are socialized to be this way across all cultures and subcultures? Also possible, but why only remark on women? Are not other groups subject to this indoctrination, if women are? Men? A particular race of any gender? Young people?
The genetic predisposition argument is laughable of course, unless it is referring to the fact that all animals generally prioritize their basic needs of survival. To claim that women are specifically socialized this way in a given culture or all cultures might hold some weight, but to be socialized implies some purpose by a dominant group, whether its conscious or unconscious of this influence; women do not just happen to be this way. Unless the concern is for women, and the statement is really about oppression, this ‘women are superficial’ statement probably only reflects one’s personal bias due to past frustrations with a few specific scenarios that they felt harmed them.
‘Women are liars.’ Are women more likely to lie than men? Are women statistically more inclined to lie than any other group? If they are, why is this important information? Would it be useful to hold distrust in general toward such a large, diverse group? If we can find evidence of this, what reasons can we find for this hypothetical statistic being true? Why is there this difference between women and, say, men? If people lie for reasons of power, to either protect their assets from opposing power or to gain power, what methods to men utilize in stead of lying, and are these methods more virtuous?
Dishonesty is fairly pervasive. It seems odd to point the finger at any one group (well, any group without a specific, shared political agenda, I suppose) and say that they lie more than others. I am uninclined to believe any one claiming to have never lied. To find a women who lies is trivial, not because women lie, but because people lie. This here is a coincidental norm, but framed too narrow in scope (as coincidental norms usually are), so is not useful and is even counterproductive, as it breeds a useless prejudice.
‘Women are oppressed.’ This one frustrates a lot of people, people who will deny it just as readily as others deny the first two- but not in the defense of women, of course. In the defense of their own desires, as people who do not identify as women but have decided that they want things that women have to offer. Do all women feel oppressed? No. Are women more oppressed than other groups? Certainly. Are women more oppressed than men? Some people don’t really understand what oppression means, but no. But wait! Men can be oppressed, and men are oppressed. But are they oppressed by women? There are many cases of an individual man engaged in an abusive intimate relationship with an individual woman, and in these cases the man may be oppressed. Are groups of men oppressed by groups of women? I’d be interested to see that. Are men systemically oppressed by women? Some would still argue that they are, but trust me when I say that these men either still don’t understand what we are talking about or are delusional.
Attitudes that push oppression on women are not directed toward individuals. They may be used on just one person at a time, but they are general attitudes. This is why a woman can say, ‘I don’t feel oppressed,’ and yet it is still useful to say that women are oppressed. This is why a man can meet a woman that is much wealthier than he is, has many more healthy relationships, and is met with greater respect than he is, but it is still useful to say that women are oppressed.
Some women are superficial. You’ve probably met some who are, but to be a woman is not to subscribe to an ideology of superficial interests, nor does it mean that one was born that way. It might say some thing about a culture forced upon women, but it isn’t even a useful comment on the susceptibility of women to said culture. Many women are liars. You probably had a woman lie to you this week. Does it take dishonesty as a trait to be a woman? No. Do many women just happen to be liars? Yes, just as most people have lied many times. Are apples worse than other fruit because they are round? How can they be, when all fruits are round? All women are oppressed, because we live in a social system that is oppressive of women. Even those women who can escape measurable effects of this oppression are still subjects to it.
So when is it useful to make serious generalizations about people? Not when they are only telling of your subjective experience. Not when you want to blame a group for a few individuals’ actions. Not when focusing on a behavior of one group that is regular across many groups. We always have to be careful of making generalizations in situations of us versus them (does one insist that vegans are pushy with their beliefs because their research has shown this trend, or is it because they feel that the core value of veganism is an attack on their meat-eating life style?), but it is easier to resist making bad general claims when we can separate out minimal personal observations and coincidental norms.
So we have this model. Generalizations are only okay when discussing systemic issues. Does this work?
To look at women again, let’s say that all women have breasts. Does this fit? It doesn’t fit in to a social system, such as oppression. And, well, men have breasts too. And, if that’s not what was meant, having a gender is a choice, so not all women have breasts. Biological women? Oh. You mean female humans? Is it useful to say that all female humans have breasts that differ from males’? If it is not, won’t it be difficult to defend the idea that female people ought to cover their breasts while males have no reason to? Probably. So what? Okay, so what about trying to explain lactation as it concerns child birth? Are people being deceived when we say that female folks’ breasts swell during pregnancy and produce milk for the child? Probably not, so does this fit in to a system? Well, yes. A biological system. An evolutionary system. Systems have exceptions, but are defined by their norms.
But why not take a step back, then? If minds are run by brains, and brains are organs that belong to a biological system, are not all human behaviors determined by a system? Why can’t we in confidence say that women are superficial, if their superficiality stems from their biology? Well, my choice of favorite color must also stem from my biology, in that case, but that’s no reason to say that all writers prefer black, or all biological males prefer black, or all North Americans prefer black.
Where do the limitations begin and end? May be you don’t care for my three-part division of generalizations, even just the chosen names. I had a spark of an idea and just started typing, and stopped when I lost interest- and I’m not even gonna edit this one! Fuck it! It’s nearly three AM! The point isn’t in the names, or the number of categories, or even my conclusions. The point is that we say a lot of things without thinking about them, without wondering why we’re inclined to say them, and without considering how it will affect our view of the world in the future, and the world view of our audiences. Ask your own questions. Dig in to your own reasons. Are your reasons for the purpose of instruction… or expression?