Generalizations, they are everywhere,an inescapable part of the human condition. When individuals are inherently limited to taking in small amounts of object reality, we by our nature, must succumb to some level of generalization. This is seen in the form of stereotypes and conflict between in and out groups. Generalizations are in a way, the means by which we paraphrase object reality so it makes more sense and is easier to navigate. Yet, they are dangerous as well, generalizations can cause great harm when individuals are less aware consciously of the power of them. I strive to avoid over-generalizing, but even with conscious knowledge, I often still fail to take the step back needed to understand the complexity within any given group.
The greatest threat of generalizations as I see it, is the threat of violence. And I do not mean physical violence alone, words are easily weaponized, I have proved sadly adept at this myself, and wars or words can cause real harm. When one talks about non-violent actions, advocacy, and protest, we often lose part of our message, when we attack with words we close minds and hearts, when we belittle someone for having an outdated or harmful world view, they become defensive. Ad Hominem attacks are the norm in our culture, a culture that is becoming the culture of the bully. We often discuss the vocal minority, how their harsh words and attacks get so much attention, and when we do this, we feed into the culture of bullying and give it more power. Violence towards others has become normalized on our social and political stage, we take individual bad ideas and turn the individuals bad. When this is done, we leave no room for growth, forgiveness, or change, we have passed judgment on the individual as some inherent flaw in their nature, we turn them into the unforgivable other, the enemy.
In our political system we often hear the politicians speak out against bullying in our schools, while they turn about in model the very same behavior on the campaign trail. Not all of us notice this bit of hypocrisy, even the politicians themselves are not able to see it clearly, but they know appealing to fear and emotion is the way towards getting elected in this current political climate. I am one of many who point this out, that the debate becomes about tearing the opponent down, attacking them on some moral podium, and thus making them seem to be the enemy to everything the politicians base holds dear. As a result, populists and ideologues dominate the halls of government, sophists skilled in debate and words, but not in understanding and reason. As they draw these lines in the sand and form their coalitions based on galvanizing their base to vote for the lesser of two evils, we see clearly the tactics of bullying, of demeaning the opponent. Vast amounts of wealth are spent attacking the individual, or manipulating statistics in a way that makes their bases feel under imminent threat. Lost is the importance of discourse and reason, lost in this mess is the ability to compromise, and we end up being ruled by school yard ideologues. There has to be more to our discourse than this, and we must field individuals who can rise above the emotional and inflammatory attacks. But it is hard, even those who say they want to reach across the isle are quickly attacked and demeaned, their motives questions, if they change their mind on something they are “wishy washy”, and we demand as a public promises that in all reality can never be kept, we want hard assurances in black and white. We need to find a better way, we need to expand our dialogue and stop labeling everyone as evil, idiotic, or somehow less human and therefor less deserving of their thoughts than others, we need to challenge the ideas, not the individual. And even if the politician fails to hear, their ideology and road map to being elected so firmly set, those that originally identify with that view may themselves be able to hear, be persuaded by solid arguments about the point of debate, when it is spoken with non-violent words. But when one side attacks the other, we galvanize their bases to stand behind their chosen political mouthpiece, and we become entrenched, rigid, and further intolerant and this applies to both conservatism and rote liberalism, neither has a monopoly on words of violence.
Here is a generalization in of itself, that most people view themselves as good people. Certainly there are those who are so damaged they believe themselves beyond forgiveness, or believe that social Darwinism is the natural state of the world. A world we have crafted with our own fallible hands. If a person believes at their core they are “good” and that they are honestly and earnestly doing what they think is right, attacking them makes the attacker on the side of “evil”, or at best an ignorant and damaged person. We create our own monsters to fight, in our quest to affirm ourselves as “good”, trapped in false dichotomies, burning bridges, and creating the “other”. And this feeds into the war of words and the culture of bullying, when we demean decent and earnest people for bad or outdated ideas.
When we attack with words and we attack the individual as flawed or faulty, we deny them a chance to hear and listen, we back them into an intellectual corner where their sense of self-identity and self-worth becomes tied to the very ideals they espouse, even if those ideals or tremendously damaging. It comes down to the tremendous power inherent in the idea of attacking the argument, not the person. I have held a few faulty ideologies in my life, for near a decade I was a vehement anti-theist, believing that the worlds ills somehow revolved around nothing more that a belief in something I have no context for. As a result I generalized badly about individuals of faith, something I have struggled with and have never been able to fully understand, and when I saw harm from it, not just my personal experience, but the harm done to others, I attacked and denigrated it. All this did, was alienate people and complicate my communication with family who are of deep faith, I help further that rift, my words of violence caused harm, the pen can have horrid and fatal results when wielded in anger.
Non-violent acts include understanding our difference in worldview and ideology, it is not being weak in one’s worldview to seek harmony, it is not a path of an idealist to embrace non-violent communication and to help facilitate dialogue between opposing viewpoints, for our survival as a species, it is an imperative that we learn to embrace difference, to educate instead of demeaning someone when their information, worldview, ideology, and difference of opinion is harmful based on our understanding of inherent difference in how we think. When we look at enculturation and how it is hijacked by forces that are uncaring and amoral in an effort to push our economy forward, or how anger and hate is transferred generation to generation, be it through the mass dominant paradigm, the pulpit, or peer pressure, we can see how even as children we are set upon a road of hate, anger, and bullying. Add in fear of the unknown, a general inability of many to properly vet sources and understand the motivations of the writer, because we have overly favored knowledge acquisition over critical thinking, we begin to see how we have created a cycle of bullying and violence.
Humanity needs to learn the basic triggers of intolerance and anger, diplomacy should not be about manipulating others to get your desired result, but a dialogue based on our similarity and differences. The population of a Republic should be taught to look at the underlying motivations and not simply pass harsh judgment, yes generalizations cause harm, but that does not mean an individual who speaks out of ignorance is an inherently bad person hellbent on destroying the other, they are lashing out against perceived threats, and the only way to get rid of the monsters that lurk in the dark is to illuminate them with the truth, and to do so, we must extend a hand and offer an alternative that recognizes that individuals endeavor with the best interests of not just themselves, but friends, family, and a world that makes sense to them. Times are changing, our technology has outstripped our ability to maintain perspective, many folks are scared and angry in this time of change and seek to impose their worldview upon others. We cannot allow erroneous and ignorant ideology to dominate our civic dialogue, but we cannot have civil discourse if we continue to assume that the other side of the debate is evil, flawed, or bad….when they may simply just be wrong. And the arbiter of this, is going to be properly peer reviewed science, and even that has it’s limits and should be challenged, but when science survives these challenges and consensus is reached, we have a guide that is as close to objective as humanity can be expected to achieve. It may show that our hard held “truths” are flawed, that our ancestors made grave errors, but this does not reflect poorly at all on those who came before, we needed to build our understanding and discover, and the errors of the past and the ones we make today, will inform us for the future, for as long as we continue to truly strive for a better world, that allows difference to flourish without judgment and anger there is hope for us yet.