It’s true, in general

On Friday night, I enjoyed a stunning performance of Wagner’s opera ’The Flying Dutchman’. One advantage of it being his shortest opera (only two and a half hours) is that we were out in time to get to the pub for some wonderfully thought provoking conversation. I’m lucky to have friends that enjoy, or at least tolerate deep conversations, and Friday night’s conversation felt especially helpful for me working out what I believe on a few different issues. It is sort of like what I feel when I write a blog post, but obviously so much better when I can have the conversation with friends who inevitably have perspectives and ideas that I haven’t thought about.

One topic that came up was the nature of knowledge, and why there is so much disagreement in the world, even on things that they should be able to agree upon. There are obviously lots of reasons, but I have believe that many of the disagreements I witness could be avoided with better use of the phrase, ‘in general’.

The problem is that the phrase mean multiple different things:

  • in every case (and couldn’t ever not be the case)
  • in every case to date
  • in enough cases that all other cases can be ignored.
  • in most cases, but there are obviously exceptions
  • in most cases recently, but there are obviously exceptions, and there is no reason to be sure that it will be true in most cases in future.

So often one person says “in general, X is a good idea” intending a weaker form, and someone else hears it with a stronger form and disagrees. If people using the phrase could be made to think and be explicit about which sense the mean the term in, I believe we’d get a lot more agreement and more satisfying conversation.

You might think that these are subtle distinctions, and we shouldn’t be too worried about them. Surely it doesn’t make sense to throw away wisdom just because it doesn’t apply to certain cases, or might not hold with the same strength in future?

I strongly disagree. If you’re the exception, being ignored or being forced to conform, causes harm and hurt. And if we act as if something that has in most cases occurred is certain to occur, we’re going to be hurt, or at least miss a positive opportunity.

We don’t have to ignore something that is often true just because there are exceptions, we just need to be careful not to take it more strongly than it deserves to be taken. I recognise that political correctness sometimes goes too far in asserting that something must be ignored if any exceptions exist. But I do think we have a responsibility to make sure that we make very clear the limits of our generalisations. If we know that something isn’t true in every case, we may want to reconsider whether to say it, unless we know how to make clear that we recognise these limitations (it is harder than you think).

Obviously it takes two to have a disagreement. If we hear a generalisation, we can try and avoid being offended (easier said than done, I know) and recognise that the speaker probably meant it in a less extensive form that we’ve interpreted it. If we agree at that level, we can acknowledge the truth at that level, but point out the harm in not recognising the limits of the truth. Or we might still not agree, but then we can at least have a real conversation, both engaging the same statement, rather than both arguing different topics.

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