Waste not, want more

No variations on a theme.

Warning! Lecture Zone: Generalize at your own risk

There is one blanket statement that I can accept: “Blanket statements are the devil.”

The Dictionary of Rose, 30th ed., 2011 defines blanket statement as “a jerk-bum method of communicating that involves stereotyping to the nth degree and lumping the worst of anything in with the best and the averagest anythings.”

Clear? Probably not. What I am getting at is our willingness, me included, to say things that we don’t really mean. I’m talking about things beyond light-hearted exaggeration and sarcasm (though maybe we – yes, as a people – are far too willing to be insincere and coy rather than directly saying how we feel about something or someone). Call me some sort of accuracy fascist, or hater of artistic license, but I think casual society (how’s that for a phrase?) and the language pendulum have gone too far.  It’s just too cool to slam, disavow, and point out the worst. Criticism has its place but we should also be capable of giving positive feedback, and recognizing strengths, beauty and wonder.

Aside: I have been known to be hyper-critical in my day and I will acknowledge this. I can definitely overdo it, and focus more on the negative than the positive, though I’m learning I cannot hold a candle to some.

But my point is not our willingness to criticize. My real issue is one specific symptom of this critical culture: the earlier mentioned blanket statement. To achieve the desired effect of our statement, do we really need to say or imply that all X are/do/have Y? Really? How has language arrived at this place? Has it always been this way?

Essentially, I think we’re (often) too happy to make these all or nothing statements without acknowledging exceptions. Granted, you cannot follow every sentence with “well, not everybody.” But is there any reason we can’t use words like “sometimes” or “on Tuesdays” or “I feel like”? Heaven forbid we occasionally go so far as to say, “maybe I’m wrong but…” or “ it seems, in some cases”!

I could get over it. Just words, right? Sticks and stones and all that. However, I think carelessness with language has real harms. It stifles debate (because if you’re wasting time responding to garbage, you don’t get to make a real point) and contributes to the type of hyperbolic non-conversation that has been so damaging for example in recent American political debate. On a touchy feely level, it also just hurts sometimes or at the very least it annoys me – always (oops, there I go). Observe the table:

Statement Accuracy Level harm-unfairness-annoyance
Wool is itchy Not true The wool industry suffers from your negligent statement and what about lovely merino?
Women love shoes and shopping Not true If I don’t love shoes and shopping, I’m not a “real” woman
Canada is cold in winter Mostly true, but not everywhere, all the time When you travel to Antarctica in January people might say at least it’s not Canada
Lawyers have to work long hours to succeed Not true If you can’t work 80 hours a week due to life, family obligations or a disability, you  can’t be a lawyer. Too bad!
Mr. T is a useless teacher Not true Useless is pretty strong and I learned things from Mr. T
Canadian water is pristine Potable in most places, but not everywhere It ignores that numerous small communities and First Nations are often exposed to e.coli and other issues
Middle-aged white guys are all bad Not true We’d all be missing out on the lovely middle-aged white guys out there

While my examples aren’t serious, I am. Really, horrendously, embarrassingly serious. I cannot think of a time when a generalization has done any good. Let’s get comfortable with uncertainty and subtlety. Everything has a context and maybe we should be spending a little more time giving context to what we say. Maybe people are also more likely not to misconstrue our statements if we explain what we mean more fully. Or maybe not. See how I did that?

PS: I’m very interested in being/willing to be called out on this. Please.

Advertisements

March 25, 2011 - Posted by | Bad TV References, Brackets, Childhood Complaints, Irritated, News, Wild Animals |

4 Comments »

  1. I (usually) tend to be hyper-critical by default, much to my chagrin and educated embarrassment. That said, I agree with your points (for the most part) and don’t have anything snarky to say about them… for now. 😉

    Of course, as a fellow COMS student, I believe that language has much more power than we often acknowledge, and this power can have both positive and destructive effects if it’s wielded too casually. Generalizations can have a place in humour, methinks, but that requires an unspoken understanding between the author/speaker and the audience that THIS GENERALIZATION IS JUST FOR FUN. Easier said than done, right?

    Comment by Dana | March 25, 2011 | Reply

    • Definitely easier said than done, and as the lover of this sort of humour and just for fun understandings, it’s a fine line to walk. Maybe it’s a matter of frequency…or not.

      Comment by Rose | March 25, 2011 | Reply

    • COMS dorks unite!

      Comment by Rose | March 25, 2011 | Reply

  2. Uh.. I think I’m still stewing in that blog of yours. True Rose form :).

    Comment by katiechipman | March 26, 2011 | Reply


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: