Against the Tyranny of Exceptions

Against the Tyranny of Exceptions March 10, 2017

vbegod9a5ti-levi-saundersThese days, policing generalizations is the go-to move when you’ve got no other arguments. The distinction between the logical fallacy known as “hasty generalization,” and generalizations as such, has broken down. Now the mere observation, “that’s a generalization,” is expected to strike our ears as an effective counter-argument. But rational people make generalizations all the time. It’s part of life. There’s nothing wrong with them per se, and we don’t owe anyone an apology for making them. Here are some examples of perfectly valid generalizations:

Vaccines are a good idea.

Small children should not be left alone with pitbulls.

You will die if held underwater for five minutes.

If your wife catches you looking at pornography, she will not be pleased.

Skinny people make bad sumo wrestlers.

Michael Bay makes terrible movies.

Are there exceptions to these generalizations? Of course. “The Island” exists, and was a very serviceable movie, despite the now hopelessly anachronistic MSN product placements. That’s why they’re called “generalizations” and not “exhaustive statements of truth.” But when it comes to politics and culture, the rules apparently change, at least in my experience. And one side of the political aisle is a far worse offender.

Generally speaking (heh), the political left deals in particulars and exceptions. It’s how they get everything done, socially and politically. “X sweeping policy change should be adopted because of ABC exception to a general truth.” Everything is advanced through appeals to extreme cases:

Women belong in combat because a tiny percentage of women are physically on par with a tiny percentage of men.

Abortion is acceptable because of rape, incest, and the life of the mother.

Transsexuality is healthy because a minute percentage of trans individuals are born with ambiguous genitalia.

Rare outliers are used as proxies for the vast majority of cases. But this is not an accurate picture of reality. The vast majority of women are physically weaker than the vast majority of men. The vast majority of abortions are elective. The vast majority of the transgendered are unambiguously biological men or women. These statements will draw howls of indignation and “you can’t say that’s” from certain quarters. But they’re no less true.

Ben Shapiro offers the appropriate response to this argument-by-exception tactic. And it’s an excellent reminder of why generalizations are often powerful tools to help us get to the truth. He asks whether a progressive student only wants abortion to be legal in the cases of rape, incest, and the life of the mother, and whether the intersex are the only trans people with a valid claim to surgery and access to both bathrooms. We might also ask whether combat roles should only be open to exceptional Amazon women who can meet the physical requirements to which men are subject.

In cases like this, it generally (heh) turns out the progressive is not interested only in these rare cases, but is using them as wedge arguments to push the broader agenda. Thus, Shapiro exposes the element of dishonesty underlying arguments against generalizations. In politics, like the rest of life, we do not make policy based on rare exceptions. It’s an irrational way to live. You do not leave your child alone with pitbulls even though there are a few nice pitties out there. You do not hold someone underwater for five minutes even though there are free divers who can survive that, and you do not continue to see “Transformers” sequels even though “The Island” remains singularly awesome.

Yes, there are exceptions to generalizations. But as the saying goes, the exception proves the rule. And more often than not, those who are particularly fussy about generalizations are just using special cases to sneak in their own, unspoken generalizations. Don’t buy it.


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