I just saw a witty tweet go by, about the different reasons why men and women go into politics. It’s wrong.

Whenever you see a sentence which beginning with “Men...” or “Women...” followed by a verb, that sentence is wrong. This includes for example all of those beginning “Women want” or “Men won’t”. In fact, such sentences are wrong when instead of a gender they begin with “Canadians” or “Africans” or “Muslims” or “government employees” or almost any other collective expression.

People do not exist or feel or think or act in the collective. They are individuals and every single one is an exception to lots of average findings about groups they can be sorted into.

Speaking about people in this way, on any subject that matters, is evidence of sloppy thinking. It’s stupid and dangerous. Please stop doing it.



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From: Mark (Jun 11 2011, at 20:11)

Here's a wrong sentence:

Men are human.

I think there might be some more examples ;)

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From: John Cowan (Jun 11 2011, at 20:18)

"I have heard it said that all foreigners will do anything for gold. I am glad to see it is not so."

"Any saying that claims all of some group will do a particular thing is not to be trusted," Park observed.

"Spoken like a judge."

--Harry Turtledove, _The Pugnacious Peacemaker_

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From: Neil Conway (Jun 11 2011, at 20:28)

Generalizations about sets of individuals are usually not absolutely true, but that doesn't mean they have no value or should always be avoided. Computing an aggregate statistic over a data set is one of the few ways we know of to make sense of the world in which we live. Any such generalization will have exceptions and is likely to be true only in a probabilistic sense, but so what? As long as you understand the limitations of the approach, generalizations are incredibly useful and there is no reason to discourage their use.

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From: Carl (Jun 11 2011, at 23:39)

To be unwilling to say, "Men are taller than women," is absurd, yet it is a natural consequence of insisting that the individual, not the collective, alone has real existence.

To me this view makes nonsense of the world. We cannot say "America is bombing Libya," but only "Some Americans are bombing some Libyans." But this is not the same thing at all! Some Saudis attacked America on 9/11 but Saudi Arabia did not attack America! On the other hand, if America were to use only a mercenary force made of non-Americans, this would in no way alter the fact that America is bombing Libya.

The world has more in it than just atoms or individuals. It also has wholes which are different from their parts, and these wholes often have properties not shared by those parts.

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From: Jesper (Jun 11 2011, at 23:49)

I absolutely agree with most things you said (that the stereotype becomes a cage from which the person can't escape), but I'm a bit unsure of saying "generalizations are never correct" for what I hope are obvious reasons.

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From: Katja (Jun 12 2011, at 00:07)

Relevant here, I think, are a cartoon (http://xkcd.com/385/) and a blog post by Miguel de Icaza (http://tirania.org/blog/archive/2011/Feb-17.html). :)

Cheers, Kat.

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From: Stephen B (Jun 12 2011, at 01:09)

The correct statement is almost as easy to make but it lacks the dogmatic certainty which some people unfortunately find easier to work with:

"On average, men are taller than women."

"Statistically, women tend to ..."

See? Was that so hard?

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From: Clasqm (Jun 12 2011, at 02:39)

"When ever you see a sentence be gin ning with “Men...” or “Women...” fol­lowed by a verb, that sentence is wrong. ...People do not exist or feel or think or act in the collective."

Well, "people" is a collective noun too, you know. Or does this rule not apply to you?

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From: len (Jun 12 2011, at 02:51)

Generalizations ARE politics.

So is this article.

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From: Marc Anders (Jun 12 2011, at 04:54)

Hi Tim,

I'm a little boggled that people are getting hung up on implementation details :) instead of responding to your point.

Marc

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From: Duncan Cragg (Jun 12 2011, at 05:04)

This kind of right-wrong polarisation is considerably more harmful than gender polarisation.

In my individual, personal opinion and experience... :-)

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From: Rick DeNatale (Jun 12 2011, at 06:48)

Women breathe.

Men must eat to survive.

All generalizations are false, including the generalization that "all generalizations are false."

This is the stuff of Gödel and Hofstadter.

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From: Alan Green (Jun 12 2011, at 07:27)

Yes, we're all individuals.

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From: Erik Engbrecht (Jun 12 2011, at 09:01)

What you're saying is that statements of generalities must always be explicitly qualified, even if a listener/reader should reasonably assume them based on context. That's probably a good practice, especially on the internet (what's the context of a tweet?), but I think it reflects as much on the sorry state of listeners/readers as it does on speakers/writers.

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From: Sergey (Jun 13 2011, at 07:40)

I think you're wrong. Like in OOP, people inherit properties of their class which certainly include gender, nationality, social class, etc. Individuality in terms of a single person is cool but all other things mentioned do have their own individuality and it is naive to think that you, for example, don't have any shared features with other men.

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From: Ed Tennant (Jun 13 2011, at 10:02)

Doesn't it depend on the size of the generalized group? For instance, I do believe NFL players and owners are greedy. It would be pleasant to be proven wrong.

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From: BrianC (Jun 13 2011, at 11:50)

Women don't want to be generalized.

no wait, that's wrong...

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From: Tom (Jun 13 2011, at 13:54)

"...is evidence for sloppy thinking"

Hey - what else do you expect from a Twitter user?

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From: Martin Probst (Jun 14 2011, at 05:29)

As an interesting aside, many people actually *want* to be part of a generalizable group. It manifests in many ways. Some are negative like nationalism or racism, some are arguably positive like "my church" or "my neighbourhood". Some people actively assume stereotypes to "better fit in".

So I think it's wrong to generalize that everyone always wants to be treated as an individual.

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From: Bill Moore (Jun 14 2011, at 11:41)

May father always used to teach the same point by saying "All generalizations are useless including this one"

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June 11, 2011
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