The Danger of Generalizing Hot Button Topics
Language is powerful. It can inform or confuse, instill fear or instill hope, build up or tear down. When it comes to every-day conversation (particularly with the internet) it’s easy to think that what you say doesn’t really matter. Making broad generalizations, like all Americans are fat, goes relatively unnoticed, right? The person who says it knows, logically, that not all Americans are fat, but whether it’s intentional or not, they’ve just called every American (the North and South continents) overweight. One person saying something like this is relatively easy to ignore. But what if it isn’t one person? What if it’s hundreds or thousands of people making the same generalization? Does it start to wear on the minds of the subject? Does it hurt them psychologically? Does it damage their reputation in the eyes of others who have never even met them?
This type of harmful generalization comes in many different forms. An overt statement is the easiest to spot. Someone who says ‘Muslims are violent people’ might be more likely to have their viewpoint refuted by whoever is listening. But what if they phrase it differently? What if they say “Why are Muslims so violent?” or make a joke about Muslims being terrorists? I would argue that this type of generalization is worse than the overt kind because it passively assumes something offensive. Asking why Muslims are so violent implies and assumes that all Muslims are violent. It turns a complex subject into the equivalent of a sound bite, then uses it as the foundation of something else.
There is a good chance that, if you’ve spent any time communicating on the internet, you’ve run into this in some form or another. Forums, social media and Q&A comments have allowed these types of generalizations to run wild. Questions like “Why do atheists hate god?”, “Are women too sensitive?” and “Why are black people lazy?” are all offensive generalizations. Pretty much every hot button issue has its own memes, quotes and questions that oversimplify to the point of bigotry.
But, am I just whining for the sake of whining? Saying what is ‘politically correct’ isn’t always easy and some might say that we’ve gotten too sensitive, or nit-picky, where hot button issues are concerned. Though, one of the best tests is to ask yourself if you’re on one side of the issue you’re talking about. Say, for example, there is a riot occurring between African Americans and the police. If you’re not African American and you’re not a member of the police, then you probably aren’t qualified to comment on the situation. You can have an opinion (It’s hard not to have them) but the further you are from the parties involved, the easier it is to fall into the pitfalls of generalizations. Even when close to one side, it would still be better to listen to their opinion before jumping to your own conclusions.
Again, however, why is this important? Can’t the person who is offended by my generalized question just suck it up? I had to deal with X when someone said Y. It’s true that the world is filled with offensive things. All of us have to ‘deal with it’ to a certain extent. But I don’t think that anyone would deny certain people have to suck it up more than others. Certain groups, be they gender, racial, political or religious, encounter more resistance and more bigotry than others. And the more someone is forced to deal with insults and offenses, the harder it becomes to brush it off. At best they become a little bitter, at worst they become violent. This then turns into self fulfilling prophecy. If you ask a Muslim person why he is violent over and over again, eventually he might lash out at you. It’s like poking a bear with a stick; it might ignore a few jabs, but eventually it’s going to take a swipe at you. It doesn’t mean that the bear is violent, it means you provoked it. Now just imagine these agitating generalizations on the scale of hundreds or thousands. Would you be able to shrug off an unending onslaught of casual insults? If you think that you could do it with ease, then you’ve probably never been on that side of the issue.