All generalizations are dangerous, even this one.

All generalizations are dangerous, even this one. – Alexandre Dumas (fatherson)

What generalizations have you already made about this person? Their intelligence? Their habits? Their driving ability? How could that prove to be dangerous?

What generalizations have you already made about this person? Their intelligence? Their habits? Their driving ability? How could that prove to be dangerous? Only if you open your mouth, right?

What does that mean?
There seems to be some confusion as to which Alexandre Dumas is the author of this quote, the father or the son. However, either way, it is quite an interesting quote.

Generalizations are very broad statements, covering whole groups of people or things. There is the implication that there are few, if any exceptions. This is both their strength, as well as their weakness.

They are usually based on a common characteristic, which has been observed by many, and therefore as least slightly credible. However, as mentioned before, we often forget that there are exceptions. I feel sorry for the Asian who isn’t good at math (a common generalization in the USA).

The quote then ends by warning us against all generalizations. Even the one in the quote. That is because some generalizations might not be dangerous.

Why are generalizations important?  
Most humans can only remember so much, which is another generalization. Are you starting to see a pattern? The more intricate the rules are, the harder to remember. Organic Chemistry and Quantum Physics immediately come to my mind. What comes to yours?

Generalizations are guidelines which help us get through the most general of cases. But there are always exceptions. That’s because generalizations without any exceptions have a name, they are called Rules.

As long as we can remember that there are exception, and remember to look for them before we use the generalization, we can save a lot of time and effort. That’s what generalizations do for us. And try to remember that every generalization can be dangerous, even this one.

Where can I apply this in my life?
We all make generalizations. That in itself is a generalization. That is getting a little bit Meta- for me (generalizing about generalizations). But seriously, we have a tendency to make and use generalizations quite frequently.

Think about this the next time you look out the window in an attempt to determine what you think the weather is, or soon will be. You are relying on a generalization, based on your learning and experience. Relying on weather generalizations can be very interesting.

However, weather generalizations can also be quite useful as well. Weather is notoriously difficult to predict from even the best numbers and most up-to-date information. Yet that is exactly why they are useful to us for that exact same reason, so long as we realize that there will be exceptions.

We look out the window and apply a generalization, based on our knowledge and experience. That is far more useful to most of us than all the raw weather related data could possibly, as most of us are not meteorologists. That was a generalization, complete with an exception attached.

That is how generalizations work, both for us, as well as against us. What we do with a generalization is where things can become dangerous. There are many generalizations about groups of people, whether by country, ethnicity, race, creed, or even hair color.

Have you heard any good blond jokes lately? In the USA, blonds are often the target of jokes about intelligence, or lack thereof. It’s a generalization, and not a very true one, but most of us know a blond who isn’t all that bright, so the tradition continues.

Then you meet a blond with an advanced degree and try to tell the blond joke. That generalization just cost you, right? In a social situation, we need to remember that everyone is an individual, and presume they are an exception from the beginning.

Leave it to them they to either prove the generalization true or prove themselves to be the exception. If we start from the position of the generalization, we risk allowing the generalization to become dangerous, as the quote generalized.

And remember that generalizations are often quite specific to a culture or a region. What may seem obvious to you may be a complete mystery to someone from somewhere else. Consider the weather generalizations as an example, or even one about a group of people.

Generalizations are neither good nor bad. However, they can be dangerous, if used improperly. The trick is learning to use them properly.

From: Twitter, @myhoacommunity
confirmed at : http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/a/alexandred136868.html
Photo by Mike Fleming

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2 Responses to All generalizations are dangerous, even this one.

  1. Matthew Wright 30 July 2013 at 8:37 am #

    The tension between the general and the specific is always going to be with us. Put another way, for every over-arching generalisation, there will always be a specific exception to it – particularly if we are talking about the reality of the human condition. And yet without generalisations it is unlikely we can observe any patterns in the often chaotic mass of specifics. It’s something that, as a writer and analyst of history in particular, I often have to consider.

    • philosiblog 31 July 2013 at 7:47 am #

      Indeed. And I like the use of the word ‘tension’ in this situation. Wish I had thought of it.

      Thanks for the comment, especially one so very clear and concise.

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