Generalization

When it comes to generalizations I suppose someone will tell me soon enough not to knock it until I try it.

I have observed the writings of two people who have recently left their homeland for higher studies abroad. They are bloggers and aspiring writers and have been recording unusual events in their blogs. Reading them makes me think how important this generalization function really is to the brain. It seems to be the very first response, the first defense. It is like the strange and funny though entirely lovable robot – Johnny V – in the movie Short Circuit. In the big city or any new environs, he actively scans his surroundings saying, “Input, Input!” My two friends are doing it too. Observing, recording and processing so many new events, new sights, new linguistic nuances, culture, behavior that has the potential of creating utter chaos in the brain. In comes generalization. Now they can consolidate reams of new data in fewer categories and attribute certain traits and patterns of behavior to each category. Voila! They’ve built sorting bins in their brains. Now they have some rudimentary means of coping with the deluge of sensory perception.

So far so good, it is just a coping mechanism. So you think Americans are not good at Math or Sciences, you think they are rude, you think they are shallow and superficial, helps you tailor your own behavior toward them. You think the country is all form and no substance…a dangerous one. Maybe it works for you now to think that. Things are fine at this initial sorting bin stage but when these bins morph into really tall and fortified walls as time goes by we have ourselves people with unshakeably dogmatic views on how a certain group of people will behave. They start extending the analysis to how an entire country or race or people with a certain ethnology will behave. That is when the real danger kicks in.

My resistance to the idea of generalization stems from a realization of this danger. When I encountered a new culture for the first time I wasn’t generalizing at all, I must have been born with a gene that was averse to such a defense mechanism. But I was coming across many people who were trying to force me down one particular hatch or the other. There were people who really believed that Indians loved to burn new brides whose parents had failed to arrange for dowry, they believed that infanticide of the girl child was a widespread phenomenon. The odd uneducated American also questioned me about snake charmers on the street and felt that all Indians, male or female wore turbans on their head. My hackles were always raised in defense of all things Indian. “Ah you’re from India, to which tribe do you belong?” or “When you go to pick up your Mom on the airport will she have a humongous turban on her head?” or “What do Indians have against beef?” or “Why are they so clannish?” or “My doctor is Indian. How come all Indians are doctors?” or “Mr Patel runs the local Dunkin Donuts or 7-11, told me he’s from Delhi, do you know him?”

This could have led me to generalize that all Americans are adept at asking the dumbest questions possible but I chose to believe that this wasn’t the case. There are enough Americans out there who know better and have educated and informed opinions about India and Indians. In fact, your Indianness doesn’t trigger any automatic value judgments about you.

So if I could, I would love to caution these two people to keep this instinct in check. America isn’t all form and no substance just as India isn’t a country where dowryless brides are regularly burnt. Just reading the inscribed words of Thomas Jefferson at Jefferson Memorial, Washington DC could have sent home just the opposite message of how substantial a country America really is.

2 Comments

  1. Splendid again!

  2. Generalisations are so easy and convenient, and that's why, I think, people feel more easily inclined to generalise. No justification, I agree, but then, again, we can say the same thing about laziness, too.


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