Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Over-Generalization Problems

Over-Generalization is the thing every high school English teacher warns the class against when they are studying the unit on persuasive writing. And, I'm not making a sweeping generalization here. I'm a certified English teacher. Avoiding generalizations is part of every pursuasive writing curriculum I've seen.

It always seemed ridiculously easy to me not to generalize. Actually, it was kind of hard to generalize, although I didn't realize this. Every situation and every person was it's own discrete entity that had to be figured out individually. It makes it really hard to start conversations, because I have trouble making assumptions about what people might like to talk about, and I really hate making a guess and being wrong.

This totally doesn't bother most people, though. Most people are natural generalizers and will be quick to make assumptions about other people. If those assumptions prove to be wrong, people either adjust, or don't even register it. It's amazing how many people seem to not pay attention to the things I do to figure other people out. At the same time, however, I'm totally lost on the subtle cues communicated in body language and, sometimes, tone of voice.

Perhaps generalizers are getting plenty of other information that either reinforces, or helps them readjust their assumptions. I'm willing to entertain that notion.

However, there is a domain, divorced fron body language and social cues, in which over-generalizations become glaringly, and sometimes painfully, obviously wrong. The written word.

This is my domain. The written word is easier for me to communicate with because the written word stays. It's not like a spoken word that might flit past my ears too fast for me to understand (I eventually do, but sometimes it's a week later). The written word is pinned down and on display. I can refer back to it. I'm learning how valuable this truly is. Sometimes I totally misinterpret a written message on the first pass, but it's right there, so I can doublecheck.

So, in the domain of the written word, over-generalization is especially conspicuous. These things can be fact checked and disputed. An entire thread of the Pursuasive Writing unit has to do with identifying logical fallacies, which are largely based on different types of over-generalizations that line up pretty closely with psychologically researched decision making heuristics.

Basically, most people need to learn how to look past over-generalizations in order to make informed decisions.

Having said all that, I saw something in a bookstore yesterday that really upset me. I happen to live in the town that has one of the strongest surviving independent bookstores in the US. I love that place. I love bookstores in general because tge experience of books is very visual, tactile, and olfactory for me. E-books only give me one third of the experience.

So, I have tremendous respect for this store, and I don't want to seem like I'm bad-mouthing them. I won't even mention them by name.

In fact, I regard the upsetting thing as a typical example of neurotypical over-generalization in action. It just happened to occur in a spot I care deeply about.

One thing about this particular store is that it can be hard to find books on Aspergers on its shelves. I assume that's because the titles they do get in quickly sell online. They don't stick around in the brick and mortar for very long. I used to work for this company, and I'm familiar with how their online sales are fulfilled. This is a very plausible scenario for me.

On my last visit, I was pleasantly surprised to find a robustly stocked couple of shelves labeled 'Aspergers.' I even found a copy of Tim Page's "Parallel Play" which I've been meaning to purchase for my own personal library for quite a while.

I was pretty happy.

And then, I saw the upsetting thing. A couple psychology textbooks with the title "Mental Retardation" were placed in this section. I checked their barcode labels and, no, this was not a mis-shelving incident. The labels read 'Aspergers' and this was wrong.

Super over-generalization strikes again. Aspergers is not MR. This scares parents and promotes unfair prejudices. Not only is MR an out-dated label (differentiating between specific intellectual disabilities is much more helpful for everyone) but Aspergers is NOT MR. Not even a little bit. It's sensory issues, and noticing different details than most peopel, and trouble filtering out non-social information from social information, and having anxiety from being misunderstood all the time, but it's not mentally retarded. We're processing information at least as fast as neurotypicals, we're just tuned into different wavelengths, different bandwidths. The neurotypical world would be missing so many things if we hadn't pointed them out. And the missapplied MR label has crushed so many people. So this really offends me.

If a bookstore needs to generalize to keep a section full, I'd totally support includind Aspergers in a general autism section. That fits. Or a general special needs section. That's okay. I wouldn't feel bad about seeing Aspie books near Down Syndrome books near ADHD books in a Special Needs section.

But when a bookstore narrows down the focus of a section so tightly that it's just Aspergers (still a broad category within itself... you meet one Aspie, you've only met one Aspie, we're all different) a twenty year old textbook on MR absolutely does not belong there.

Inappropriate over-generalization hurts. And it doesn't help people understand those who are different from them. And on some levels, we're all different. This kind of thing hurts all of us.

1 comment:

  1. I suspect that like your sweeping statement about generalisation :), aspies may have a special strength in working towards generalisations rather then jumping to conclusions. E=MC2 is the biggest generalisation of the last century and made it clear that while many different frames for understanding the universe exist (relativity) there is an underlying spacetime invariant. A simplifying rule to make sense out of complexity based on specifics. I'll expand on this later - its a favorite topic that requires some more working out :).