Plural pronouns and group identifiers, part 2
Hi kids! Today's topic is "over-generalization"!
Say it with me…!
You hate it? I know I do! And it's more common than you might think!
Consider the following:
|Why say||When you mean|
|girls||→||a very specific subset of girls|
|some/most girls||→||a very specific subset of girls|
|boys||→||a very specific subset of boys|
|some/most boys||→||a very specific subset of boys|
|women||→||a very specific subset of women|
|some/most women||→||a very specific subset of women|
|men||→||a very specific subset of men|
|some/most men||→||a very specific subset of men|
|black people||→||a very specific subset of black people|
|some/most black people||→||a very specific subset of black people|
|white people||→||a very specific subset of white people|
|some/most white people||→||a very specific subset of white people|
|asian people||→||a very specific subset of asian people|
|some/most asian people||→||a very specific subset of asian people|
|Americans||→||a very specific subset of Americans|
|Cubans||→||a very specific subset of Cubans|
|conservatives||→||a very specific subset of conservatives|
|liberals||→||a very specific subset of liberals|
|Christians||→||a very specific subset of Christians|
|Muslims||→||a very specific subset of Muslims|
|atheists||→||a very specific subset of atheists|
|Jews||→||a very specific subset of Jews|
|Buddhists||→||a very specific subset of Buddhists|
If you find yourself talking or writing about people in the first column, stop and think hard. Do you really mean to be that general? Do you really mean all of the people in that group? It's possible, but most likely you don't: so why say it like that?
"Of course I don't mean literally all girls/boys/women/men/gays/cisgenders/muslims/etc when I said that: I only meant some of them, and everyone knows what I meant!"
Uh huh, and when that old racist says "Black people are lazy", she gets the same benefit of the doubt, right? After all, some black people are lazy. When that internet misogynist says "Women are bad at math", you understand he doesn't literally mean "all women", right?
As discussed in Plural pronouns and group identifiers, part 1, it is important to specify exactly who you mean when dealing with group identifiers.
Adding "in general", "most", or "some" might help, but you're still generalizing and being far too vague. And no, I don't think this is being over-pendandic.
What's the problem? What's the harm? Try the following sentences:
1) Guns you find in someone's house are unloaded, studies show.
2) In general, guns you find in someone's house are unloaded, studies show.
3) Most guns you find in someone's house are unloaded, studies show.
4) Some guns you find in someone's house are unloaded, studies show.
5) 74% guns you find in someone's house are unloaded, studies show.
Which of the sentences most accurately conveys the information? Which is most useful? Which best helps you determine how to deal with a found gun?
And probably most importantly: Which is least likely to be misused by gun rights (or gun control) advocates?
If you know the percentage, use it. If you don't know an accurate percentage, or are generalizing from personal anecdotes, say so.
When people are vague with group-identifiers, something is wrong: They either haven't thought it through themselves, or are trying to slip something by you to advance their agenda. Charity makes me hope it's the first…
Try the above sentences with variations of "black males are violent", and see what you get.
Why not be specific?
A related problem is under-generalization, or over-specification:
|Why say||When you mean|
Is what you are saying really race/gender/religion/etc-specific? Again, these are group-identifiers, and using them instead of being more specific, or more general, means:
- you really mean literally all people in that category,
- you're being lazy and haven't thought about it enough,
- or you are trying to trying to sneak in a dubious "fact" to support your position.
Update May 27, 2014: Wow, the idea of not over-generalizing has become quite unpopular over the last few days. I still stand by this though, and will not use unqualified group identifiers, especially on involuntary groups, no matter whose politics it supports… mine most of all.