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.