On October 15, 2022 a pair of young activists entered an art gallery in London and splashed tomato soup onto a van Gogh painting to protest, by some logic or other, the excesses of fossil fuels. Though the painting was protected by a covering and was not damaged, the deed prompted nearly universal outrage. As well it might. But a great many of the duo’s detractors were not content merely to condemn the act; they also had to use it to draw some kind of broad conclusion about the stupidity, barbarism, or something, of activists, environmentalists, young people or, by some logic or other, “the left”. They proffered, in other words, textbook illustrations of extrapolation and generalization, the next in our ongoing series of propaganda tools.
None of us is a stranger to generalization; we all use it at least occasionally – a generalization in itself. Nothing wrong with that. Generalizations are sometimes not only valid but useful and even vital. Yet they also have their troubling side, which Mark Twain highlighted by famously noting that “all generalizations are false, including this one”. It isn’t literally true that all generalizations are false, but it is true that a great many of them should be approached with caution.
The problem is not generalization itself. The problem is that generalization is often used carelessly, dishonestly, or even maliciously. These abuses occur when someone makes a general observation drawn from a grossly inadequate set of data – quite often a single case, as in our opening anecdote.
That’s why we label the sin not as mere generalization, but as extrapolation and generalization, which in a way is the reverse of cherry picking. Whereas the latter entails citing an inadequate number of cases to support a broad premise, extrapolation and generalization is using an inadequate number of cases to jump to an unwarranted conclusion. The tendency to extrapolate and generalize leaves many in the media virtually unwilling to simply report a single incident, without trying to shoehorn it into some overarching long-term narrative. A couple of Target cashiers in Boise wish their customers “happy holidays”, and presto, we have a full-blown, widespread perennial War On Christmas.
You’d be hard-pressed to find any activists or environmentalists or young people or leftists who wholeheartedly approve of the trashing of an artistic masterpiece. But some people want you to believe that all of the above do just that. Simply because at least two people do.
So is it false to say something like “young left-wing environmental activists are reckless, destructive and foolish”? Not exactly. There is some degree of truth in it if any of them at all fit the description. But it’s also true, to a much greater degree, that they are not. That, as Mark Twain hinted at, is the beauty – and the ugliness – of generalizations. They can be both true and false at the same time. It’s a matter of which applies to a greater degree. And that comes down to a matter of what kind of qualifier is implied, e.g.: all/ always; most/ usually; many/ often; some/ sometimes; few/ rarely; or none/ never.
Consider a statement like this:
Republicans tried to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
That qualifies as a generalization. How accurate is it? It certainly isn’t true that every single Republican tried to overturn the election, so we can rule out the all/ always qualifier. But it certainly is true that at least some of them were guilty of that offense. If we wanted to be more clear and precise, we could just state specific numbers: in Congress, 147 GOPers tried to challenge the election, while 126 did not. So it’s indeed true that many and most of them did.
Thus, in terms of a broad generalization, the statement that “Republicans tried to overturn the 2020 presidential election” is more true than false, at least if we base it on the actions of Congress. (Which is a good indicator for most interpretations of Republican sentiment, but might be too narrow for others.) One also could quibble about whether challenging the election results is a sufficient set of data to qualify as trying to actually overturn the election — though it’s very hard to see how it could be seen otherwise.
The real issue with extrapolation/ generalization – the point at which it tips from poetic license to propaganda – is when people try to pass off some/ sometimes as many/ most or all/ always. Look at another generalization that is often kicked around in the media these days:
BLM protests are destructive and violent.
How valid is this generalization? Not very valid at all, it turns out. When you look at the numbers, as posted in a study of more than 7750 BLM demonstrations, you see that 93 percent of them were totally peaceful. So that makes the generalization far more false than true. And it’s even more so when you realize that in that remaining 7 percent, most of the violence was actually just vandalism (frequently by non-protesters) or defense against excessive police force, or acts of aggression committed by someone other than a BLM protester; indeed much of the violence was directed against the protesters.
So there is no excuse for stating a blanket judgment like this. And yet many people do so quite frequently (while at the same time trying to defend the Jan. 6 insurrection by claiming that it was no worse than a BLM protest). Such narratives, along with ethnic stereotypes, represent extrapolation/ generalization at its nastiest. But they are by no means the only cases. It’s all around us, every day. Generally speaking.
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