Generalizations Are Never Defensible. Or Is This an Indefensible Generalization?

Figuring out how to talk about religion, especially in boundary crossing contexts, can be a struggle. Isn’t that part of what we are trying to do at State of Formation–figure out the how of interfaith as much as actually doing interfaith? One of my biggest struggles writing about interbelief just feels trite. Sometimes. And sometimes it just feels really important: where is the appropriate level of universality to talk about a particular aspect that doesn’t make sweeping, unfair generalizations, but also doesn’t lose the message in a cacophony of ever expanding clarifications and addendums? This sweet spot exists. I have to believe.

The problem: unscrutinized generalization. Christians believe this. Atheists act that way. Jains don’t do this. Muslims haven’t decided this question. The world is much more nuanced than such generalizations. Broad statements about large groups can be incredibly misleading. Even the divinity of Jesus Christ is not a given with some self-identified Christians who question the idea. As much as many atheists wish it weren’t the case, there are atheists who, yes, don’t believe in God or gods, but do believe in other supernatural phenomena.

We all know the world is not so black and white, but of course that generalization is also false. It is apparent that we do not all know that. How many times in recent history has someone declared Islam inherently violent or all atheists evil or all the religious imbeciles? Too many times to count. So there is certainly a need to call people out on hasty, misinformed, and hateful generalizations. Well-meaning people should also be called out on generalizations, but not in a way that derails dialogue and obscures the very messages they are trying to send.

Let me illustrate what I see as the “trite” problem that consumes so much of my mental energy–the problem I try so hard to avoid when writing. Someone writes a blog post focusing on one aspect of the large and complex world of interfaith engagement or even just about one aspect of one religion. The writer has 500, 800, maybe 1000 words to explore this issue. So the writer glosses over a couple of tangential aspects and leaves out entirely a related or parallel, but complex issue. There simply isn’t the space to cover everything. Trying to do so would require bigger and bigger circles until, and I mean this quite literally, everything becomes relevant to this topic. So this hypothetical writer keeps the post short and sweet and to the point. Then the comment section is filled with comments that start, “what about…” or “not all… .”

(I’m by no means the first to lament the state of the comment section of the internet. I’ve considered giving them up entirely.)

I’m guilty of both sides of this problem. That’s part of the reason I’m so aware of and sensitive to the consequences. As a writer, I grow weary of never-ending barrages of “most,” “a great many,” “a large percentage of,” and “only a few” invading my writing. I have certainly read more than one piece by others–finding a single sentence that didn’t sit quite right by me that colored my reaction to the entire piece.

I am not saying that such omissions of wider context should stand unquestioned. But I am saying that they should not be nitpicked to death at the expense of the larger issue explored. I would have less frustration with comments if they were written with charity and positive intentions. Rather than simply pointing out a generalization, by the author’s intention or not, add to the conversation. Please. If the author is coming from a place of construction, if the author is trying to fix a problem, if the author is highlighting something positive–let the author fly.

To criticize or not to criticize? This is a bigger question than blogs and comment sections. As I’ve said before, we all take missteps. We need to cultivate a society where a few missteps, miswordings, and unwarranted generalizations do not effectively silence a person’s voice.

Image courtesy of Flickr Commons.

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