When grading college papers, I often find myself writing "Don't overgeneralize" in the margins of my students' essays (in red ink, of course). This is in reaction to such statements as this: "Since the dawn of time, all playwrights have used irony effectively, but none have used it as well as Sophocles, the greatest of all ancient Greek writers, in his masterpiece of dramatic literature, Oedipus Rex." Overgeneralizing simplifies ideas and leads to misinformed and misguided statements.
Recent news stories are filled with overgeneralizations, so the problem seems to have gone beyond college campuses.
For instance, Paris Hilton was caught on tape saying that gay men are “the horniest people in the world” and Grindr users “probably have AIDS.” Paris has since backed off these comments and apologized, so perhaps we should give her a pass on this one. We can think of her initial comments as a first draft. She has since revised before handing in her final paper.
But Paris was not the only one simplifying and overgeneralizing recently. Chicago’s Cardinal George stated that “society will be the worse” as a result of permitting gay marriage. Oh really? How exactly will our entire society be worse if same-sex couples are given the right to marry? Be more specific. Please use examples. Until you provide clarification, your statement deserves, at best, a C-.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told Piers Morgan that, “homosexuality ceases procreation.” Um... really? Precisely how does my homosexuality cease babies being born? I have been gay for more than forty years, and babies continue to pop out all over the world anyway. Mr. Ahmadinejad, please cite your sources. Your thinking aligns with Cardinal George’s unfounded argument that same-sex couples marrying will cease the sanctity of opposite-sex couples’ marriages. Be more explicit when supporting your thesis. Your argument does not hold up to scrutiny and close reading.
Ann Coulter told George Stephanopolous recently that “civil rights are for blacks.” She went on to clarify that civil rights do not pertain to immigrants, gays, or feminists. Ms. Coulter, I will give you a few points for being specific, but “civil rights are for blacks” is a bold, general statement that does not make much sense. Yes, African-American citizens deserve civil rights, but the idea of a civil right is that it pertains to each individual American, not just one class of people. You hold a B.A. and a J.D. so I expect more from you. I suspect you are capable of a shaping a more nuanced argument. Your generalities are deliberate provocations, meant to incite anger on the left and to rally those on the right whose brains are wired to think in polemic black and white.
So what is the result of these broad, sweeping generalities about homosexuality in our public discourse? I believe that all people will be damaged by this kind of talk. The human race, far and wide, will not be able to think in complex ways. All the people in all the world will be influenced by all the celebrities and politicians who want to manipulate all the minds of the human species, and, ironically, this will harm all the gay homosexuals who are the ones whose lives are being discussed in oversimplified ways.
Oh, I’m sorry. Am I overgeneralizing?
This story originally appeared in Huffington, in the iTunes App store.