How about a little more sophistication in modern discussions? Here’s one simple rule to help.

There are subtleties of language and in argumentation that I’m convinced many of us moderns fail to appreciate. And the loss of appreciation for these subtleties often leads to a shrill quality of or a coarsening of modern discourse. This in turn least to misunderstanding and the tendency to take personally many things which are not intended as so.

The misunderstandings are often magnified on the Internet, and especially in the blogosphere which, as a written form of communication, means that we often lack some of the other signals in conversation that communicate intent; things like the look on one’s face, the tone of voice, even posture. In person, when someone speaks words that may seem challenging or even harsh a major change in interpretation can be caused if we see a wink, or a smile, or at least a gentle look on the face of the other. And thus, there is added to the conversation and additional context of serenity. But  such “contextualizers” are usually missing in the written conversation that predominates the Internet.

But even when all the usual helps of more personal conversation are present, there are still and often misunderstandings that come down to a simple failure to appreciate the subtlety of human language.   In the past on this blog we have discussed the problem of all or nothing thinking (HERE).

Today there might be some value and also making an observation that many fail to appreciate the difference between general observations or remarks and universal observations or remarks. A general remark is one in which the perceived qualities mentioned of a group or idea are generally observable or true, but are not always true, in each and every case of a person or a group.

Universal Remarks, refer to traits of individuals or groups that are true in each and every circumstance, almost without exception.

As you might guess, universal comments or remarks are far more rare than general remarks or comments. And the point to emphasize here is that general remarks admit of distinctions and  exceptions.

To illustrate the problem of failing to distinguish the general from universal , and also to state plainly why I think this sort of reflection is necessary, let me recall some remarks I made about the baby boom generation last week on the blog. (HERE)

In that article I argued that the “Baby Boom” generation (those born 1945 to 1965) is a generation largely marked by individualistic, self-centered thinking, and revolutionary and iconoclastic ideas. Frankly it is hard to argue that the boomer generation which began to step into leadership beginning in the late 1960s, ushered in a good cultural era for this country. With the possible exception of moving forward with civil rights reforms begun in the 50s,  and a certain creative use of new technologies,  things have been otherwise a pretty unmitigated disaster in the wake of boomer “leadership.” .

Our families and family structure are in the shredder, sexual promiscuity, STDs and teenage pregnancy are rampant, divorce an abortion have skyrocketed, even as birthrates and marriage rates have plummeted. There are strong increases in school dropout rates problems,  and drops in SAT scores and other common measurements for academic success as America slips lower and lower in comparison to other countries in academic success. Addictions of all sorts, along with the crime and other social ills that accompany it are widespread as is uncontrollable spending and the amassing of huge personal debt. Bankruptcy, once though a disgrace is now highly common. Church attendance has plummeted as has participation in any number of civic functions and  groups oriented to the common good. You get the point…

Frankly, most people who read the blog understood and accepted this data for what it is, namely that the baby boom generation sowed the wind and now reaps the whirlwind.

But there were some who wrote in on the comments who were greatly offended, indeed,  taking quite personal offense at what I wrote. A few of the angry comment I posted, most I did not.

At the end of the day, most who were offended seem to of take what I wrote as a personal accusation. It was not. What I made was a general remark. It was not a universal remark, such that I argued that every single member of the baby boom generation without exception  has lived a dysfunctional, disorderly and destructive life.

Many of those who wrote to express offense said to me in effect, “How dare you condemn a whole generation.” That of course is not what I did. I made a general remark not a universal one.  I myself am a member of the baby boom generation and to a large degree have avoided some of the most deleterious behaviors and traits of my generation.  I know others who have as well.

That a certain trait or traits are generally observable in this segment of our culture, and a large segment at that, does not mean that every member of the group has the said traits to the same degree, in the same manner, or even at all.  General observations are general, not universal.

Another angry commentor accuse me of being “judgmental.” But here too, she seems to take personally what I say. To the degree that some judgments are forbidden us, they refer to judging a condemning way, individual persons, their motives or state before God.

But engaging in social commentary, which is one of the things we do here in a blog like this, is not to be judgmental.  It is only to state an opinion or point of view that readers are free to accept, reject, or something in between.

Only if I had said something to the effect, of a universal comment, for example, that “every member of the generation of the baby boomers are bad people,”  could I be accused in some sense of being judgmental.

Just a couple of visual illustrations and then I’m done. Note in the graph that I’ve posted at the above right, that there are many data points, and in the the middle is something called the mean line. This means that approximately half the dots fall to one side of the line or the other. But very few of the dots are actually on the line.  Most are to some degree close to the mean line, but some are actually quite far from a line, a few dots are real outliers.

Speaking with general observation we can say that most of the dots on the grass exhibit some relationship to the line, some more than others. That is, they have a general relationship to the line, but not a universal relationship. If the dots had a universal relationship to the line, the dots would all be right on the line. Instead they are generally related, more or less to the mean line.

In the picture here to the immediate left, there is a circle and a number of randomly space dots. In drawing the circle, many dots are included within it but some fall outside. Some degree, all the dots are related to the circle in some way. Looking at this reality I could generally observe that dots are circle dwellers as a group. But this is a general observation, for it remark of what is generally true, not universally true. The average dot is going to have the strong tendency to be a circle-dweller, but there are some which are not.

Thus I hope to illustrate the difference between making general remarks, and universal ones, between making general observations, and universal ones.

And grasping this distinction, is one way of appreciating the subtlety of human speech and argumentation. And, grasping appropriate subtleties is one way of defusing hostile reactions   Sophistication about human modes of speech accepts the possibility that one’s  opponent or interlocutor is not simply an ideologue,  making unqualified statements.

Sadly today, many lack the sophistication necessary to sort out ideas, and make necessary distinctions. The result is that many today in our culture are thin-skinned and take things personally, which they ought not.

There is also a modern tendency (which is either antecedent to, or flows from the problem I have described here), which brings many people to doubt good will on the part of those who speak in a general way to make observations or arguments. In other words, there is a strong tendency to be cynical and to have a hostile stance when we presume that people are speaking in a universal way, rather than a  general way.

The result of all of this is poisonous discourse and/or, taking offense when none was given or intended.

So, how about a little sophistication which recognizes the necessary distinction that  general observations are not universal ones?

This video is a hoot. One of my favorites. Now, the soul of wit is that it contains some element of truth. And as you enjoy this video you may recognize what is generally true, but realize that there are many exceptions to what he says. Not every man is exactly as he describes, nor is every woman as he describes. Our comedian speaks to what is generally or often true, but not always and not unvaryingly in every man or woman. He speaks in a general way, not a universal way.

27 Replies to “How about a little more sophistication in modern discussions? Here’s one simple rule to help.”

  1. Thank you for your reflection. It can be frustrating when dealing with generalities because sometimes I feel the need to provide every single distinction and disclaimer I can think of in order not to offend someone, but then the response becomes cumbersome and it will STILL manage to offend at least one person. Oh well, part of the cross 🙂

  2. Compassion is a good key in cases like these. Very interesting analysis here. Thank you.

  3. Hey Msgr Pope. It looks like you pasted the code for the video on the visual side, not the html tab.

    1. [“Mi 13.3” – “11:58”:] I have to have language to interpret the ‘BIBLE’: I take ‘english’ languages from the novels IVANHOE and PRIDE AND PREJUDICE; if I may add this to your very subtle – philosophical – discussion. I spent time in Taunton, I was sent by my ‘GYMNASIUM’ in Graz in Styria in Austria to the King’s College (and to “Franklin” in Paris).

  4. Msgr. Pope, I believe solipsism is the technical term for what you are describing. It’s a cousin of narcissism.

  5. Dr. Ben Carson got the same reaction when speaking live and video taped at the Nation Prayer Breakfast recently Monsignor and he was in a room full of so called sophisticates. It’s a disease not a misunderstanding. It’s called liberalism and political correctness only makes it worse. Just tell it like it is and move on. They don’t want an explanation, they want an apology for drawing distinctions and pointing out differences. To them there are just dots, no lines or circles.

  6. I am from generation X, and I agree with your assessment of the baby boomers. However, I am somewhat unique because my parents were much older and both lived through the Great Depression and WWII. Most of my generation have baby boomer parents. I am surprised that anyone took offense, because I don’t think it takes much of a logical leap to see that the excesses of the baby boomer generation have been returned seven-fold. I have many friends who are baby boomers, and they tend to be the outliers. I didn’t think about them specifically when you mentioned baby boomers. I thought about the general things that happened during that generation’s youth and the consequences.

    1. Yes, I think they took offense for the reasons I state, among others, namely that they take personally what I mean due to an inability to distinguish a general observation from a universal one.

  7. Monsignor, I have to admit, that when you make general comments about some of the responses your readers leave, I have the need to ask myself whether I am “guilty as charged”. Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

    I have learned the hard way that “humor” does not translate well in emails and text messages. Without an LOL or a 🙂 many times people have no idea I’m joking – including my daughter! I figured out that I have offended at least a couple of people when I wrote things that were meant to be humorous – but without being able to hear my voice or see my facial expressions, the humor was lost. Live and learn.

  8. Having been born in 1948, I lived through most of this junk.
    The accusation “you are being judgmental” has always fractured me. The very cry is a judgment — about ME! My constant response, “Damn right I am being judgmental. You are wrong and you know it, and I’m not going to lie so you can feel good about doing wrong.”
    Of course, I Do realize, “this means War” in most cases.
    (I was lucky to have had some bad experiences at a young age which imprinted on my mind that if I have to slavishly agree with someone in order for them to be my friend, they are not the sort of person I need as a friend.)
    Hang in there!
    Keep preachin’.

  9. A generalization can be true in every case. I don’t think there is any dispute about that. Going back to the topic of the boomer generation, maybe the legalization of birth control pills was the climax of that time. I say that because it take the most optimistic, or one of the most optimistic, of all human activities, the marital act, and treats it in a most cynical way.

  10. Another fascinating aspect of subtlety exists – and that is *context.*

    In Electrical engineering, I took a fourth year algebra course called “Linear Systems” – it was a course about systems as such – not any particular type of system – but just “systems” with their proper mathematical canonical form in their abstract structures. The interesting thing is, the same symbol was used in a given equation to represent two different things (rather than X simply meaning X all the way through, and Y simply meaning Y all the way through) – and we could tell what each symbol stood for by its context within the equation. In that, it went beyond the standard algebra taught in school (it was a higher level of abstraction).

    In a similar vein, Dietrich von Hildebrand wrote a book called “Ethics” which I borrowed from the university library just after my graduation in 1991. He said something very interesting in the introduction – that the same word could have different meanings in different parts of the book, but we could determine the meaning because of its context within the text.

    With the Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena, God the Father talks about the virtues of “self-hatred” and “self-contempt” in coming to union with God. With that, we have to enter into the spirit of the discourse and not take those words in the sense that the modern person would – as in the context of the Dialogue they mean self-contempt and self-hatred of the *false* self created by sin – that self that is independent of God.

    To fully appreciate Catholic philosophy, theology, spirituality (and the Bible) we have to understand that subtlety of context – not only the context of individual words, but of entire statements, and writings (the Song of Songs in the Bible comes to mind) – for language is only a finite tool attempting to describe an infinite manifold of reality – our Catholic Faith is infinitely richer than any finite method is capable. To understand it is a journey of exploration that lasts all of our lives – and to the end of time for humanity – as we really need the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit to meaningfully describe it to another and to plunge into it – as human reason alone is not up to the task.

    Of course, not grasping context is a source of misunderstanding in communication – as we need wisdom in addition to mere knowledge to be effective communicators and evangelists.

  11. Msgr. Pope, just a quick note about grammar and spelling. With all due respect, I sometimes find your posts difficult to understand and have to go over them a few times due to bad grammar or spelling mistakes. Such as “A general remark is on in which the perceived qualities mentioned,” “divorce an abortion have skyrocketed,” “taking quite personal offense at that what I wrote,” etc. These and other mistakes can sometimes also be the cause of some misunderstandings. Although they cannot, of course, cause one to doubt the writer’s sincerity they can often make it difficult to understand what was meant. I do not mean to be over critical but I find you have some very interesting thoughts to share and I would like to make the most of them but I am sometimes challenged by the bad spelling/grammar.

    This is meant as a personal note to you. Please do not feel obliged to publish this note.

    1. Shouldn’t the “j” in your first sentence be capitalized? Also after “such as” should there not be a comma? Also, after “These,” a comma seems called for to set the clause apart, and again, after “mistakes.” I would also place a comma after sincerity. Finally, your sentence beginning with, “I do not mean…” is a run-on sentence. Consider punctuation, or breaking it into two sentences. Thanks also for your edits.

      1. I did not claim to be perfect with my spelling/grammar/punctuation, but was simply trying to point out, in the spirit of charity, that your posts can sometimes be difficult to understand because of these mistakes. It requires an effort on the part of the reader to interpret what he thinks you mean, without being certain. I was not trying to be pedantic, I just thought you would like to know, that’s all.

        (By the way English is not my first language.)

  12. Gerard,
    I can see that your remark is intended to be constructive and personal. And, who am I to question how you understand things?

    I only want to take this opportunity to gently remind readers that it is extremely challenging to crank out posts of this length day after day without making a few mistakes. Monsignor Pope is a busy man, and a blog is a ton of work, especially since Msgr. posts regularly on such weighty matters. As a high school English teacher, my students were required to submit three or four drafts for each writing project; and even then, rarely did I read even one perfect paper. I kept a blog once, so I know the kind of work that goes into it – and I didn’t post nearly as much as Monsignor!

    Maybe Monsignor Pope’s parishioners will get him an editor! 😉

    1. Thanks for your understanding. I do get more than my share of grammar critics. It is true I commit gaffs and as you say, could use an editor. Its hard to proof your own stuff

  13. This reminds me of a heated discussion I got into about rights, which ultimately ended with me getting blacklisted by the National Catholic Register. I was saying that the concept of “rights” in general does not come from God, but circumstances (following Aquinas). But there are some circumstances that never change because they relate to human nature, which is always the same. Thus rights in general are not inalienable, though some particular rights are. Just about everyone failed to make this distinction, and I was accused of sayings my things I never said at all.

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