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Why generalization is a necessary non-evil May 19, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in America, india, rant.

..its only the degree that is negotiable.

Of course, if you are a machine learning/AI student, this is rather obvious. But I am talking of generalizing in a broader context of interpreting socio-cultural/economic phenomenon, though the spirit is the same.

Imagine you are a native of London and a friend who just returned from Paris tells you that Paris is a romantic city. You then ask him not to generalize and tell him that the last time you visited, a drainage pipe had broken and entire Paris neighborhood was stinking. The question now is who after all is generalizing ?

Okay I agree, that was a rather straw man argument, but sufficient to get the message across.

Lets get to the point. My friend Sanjika pointed to this WSJ cartoon which I found incredibly funny. As curiosity had it, I looked up to see what others thought. (To generalize), it turns out both Sanjika and I have a pathetic sense of humor. The argument ( here and here ) there is partly about it being not funny ( okay, understandable ) but there are still a bunch of folks talking of how this is just stereotyping etc. etc. Well, caste system is an Indian reality. To say that you have 3 friends from 3 different cases and a neighbor lower caste does not mitigate the larger truth, in fact that is generalizing !

Besides, what is that one statement that you can make of India ( or for that matter any country ) that is true of every Indian and piece of land in India ? I think even people say that we are warm people who invite strangers to our houses and treat them to sub-continental hospitality, they are stereotyping Indians ! “How dare you call me a nice person !!” 😉

Don’t we realize that most of the advertisement is indeed stereotyping. When a beauty store advertisement has a lady wearing pink reading a home decoration related magazine with a soft toy in her lap, they are technically stereotyping and to sound like a political liberal that I am not, “manipulating the minds of women”.

On a related note, even if something is mildly offensive/sad, the humor aspect stands out. Maybe there are different regions in our brains that process these things – something can be offensive/sad and humorous at the same time. The Germans have a word for it – Schadenfreude.



1. Randomizer - May 19, 2007

I have tried real hard to find the line between ‘justifiable generalizing’ and ‘stereotyping’ . Truth is, that the line is so thin you will inadvertently cross it at some point.

The rule of thumb for situations like these I guess is – if it’s a compliment arising out of the stereotype, express it… Otherwise just shut up ! 🙂

2. Sharath Rao - May 19, 2007

Exactly, hence the very first statement of the post …calling Indians casteist is a probably a stereotype but insisting caste is often a significant feature in day to day life of a large number of indians is reasonable. 😉

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