The Fallacy of Generalizations: “The American People”

There are 5 eras in the universe's lifecycle. Right now, we're in the second era.

“All generalizations are false. Except that one. That one’s true.” –Unknown

I once received a paper that began, “People have been listening to music since the beginning of time.”

I guess such an argument could be made, if we define “time” as a human concept, e.g. this exchange from Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

Peasant: “Now I see that without man there is no world.”

Educator: “Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that all the men on earth were to die, but that the earth itself remained…wouldn’t this also be a world?”

Peasant: “Oh no. There would be no one to say: ‘This is a world’.”

All philosophy aside, “the beginning of time” seems a bit of a stretch. (The “listening to music” part is a whole other story.) Other student examples include, “All through history, people have been debating the drinking age,” and, in a paper on legalizing weed, “Let’s face it, everyone has tried it at one time or another.”

I try to discourage this kind of thing, but it’s hard to tell students not to do it when egregious hyperbole is forever showing up in public discourse. (I’ve blogged about this before in a post called, “Why Do I Even Bother.”) The latest example came only yesterday. According to NBC News, Donald Trump’s lawyer, Michael van der Veen, said this about the impeachment hearings:

“This impeachment is completely divorced from the facts, the evidence and the interests of the American people.”

Say who now?

We hear a lot about what “the American people” do and do not want. Has anyone bothered to ask them? Yes, I know that there are always polls, but, not being a statistician, I have no idea what percentage is required for a reasonable extrapolation to 100%. At any rate, I doubt it could ever be large enough to justify this level of abstract bullshit (or, as they call it in prison, “freestyling”).

Generalizations are not only boring and meaningless, they’re easy to puncture; a single counter-example is enough to pop the bubble. In the words of William James, “In order to disprove the assertion that all crows are black, one white crow is sufficient.” (After reading the student’s paper about “everyone” having tried marijuana, I had been tempted to offer my own mother as a white crow, but, not being absolutely certain as to the veracity of the example, settled on a random toddler, instead.) And to counter a claim that something is “divorced from the interests of the American people,” all we have to do is find a plurality of American people–i.e. two–who feel otherwise. In the case of the impeachment hearings, I can do that without even leaving my house.

There are only two things that are automatically true about the American people: they’re American, and they’re people. Beyond that, one should not go.

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