Thursday, November 8, 2012

Generalizations: Handle With Care!

Every individual perceives the world in a particular way and each has a personal opinion on the matters of the world. Though we may have grown up in similar environments, may share a general culture or cultural references, may have shared the same means of acquiring knowledge, may have had the same education, we still are bound to think and behave differently. If you look around you, you'll see that often your opinion differs even from that of your own siblings. Yet you had the same parents and the same upbringing. Indeed each and one of us has a distinct personality, understanding and behavior.

Yet we view the world as divided into defined groups. We create this division on some common cultural trends, languages, religions, ideas or geographical positions. The Americans, the Chinese, the Italians, the Christians, the Muslims, the Pacifists, the Opposition - more than groups of individuals, they appear to be solid blocks of something. It goes further - the Western World, the Civilized World, Africa, Europe, the Middle East and so on. We ascribe to these groups a character, a culture, a belief, a behavior, a voice and they seem to act as independent theoretical entities. Such generalization may come handy in some matters and at times may be practical, however once it establishes itself in the human minds, it creates a dangerous mentality.

While we make such generalizations in a day-to-day basis, we begin to overlook the individuals that make these groups replacing in our mind what is a chorus of voices, persons, identities with the one theoretical entity we have summarized this diversity into. Since this entity has no eyes to look into, no hands to shake, no heart that beats, we can easily forget the human element in it. When of such entity we should then wish to selectively present qualities, or examples of individuals seen as representatives, then we have slipped into something that may be truly evil.

In fact offering selected and one-sided information, as well as selectively presenting some individuals as representatives of large groups of people, is nothing more than propaganda and creation of stereotypes. Though there is who argues that propaganda may in fact be positive when put to use for higher purposes, many are the problems that arise from half-true information and crippled knowledge offered to the general public.

Let us not forget how generalization, stereotypes and propaganda were put to use against the Jewish population during World War II and at what consequences. Individuals had no longer names, but they became part of that one entity that was selectively presented to the German people through stereotypes and other forms. In addition that entity became the one to blame for all the social and economic problems and therefore the one to be eliminated. In fact at that time, the friend, the neighbor, the lover etc. became 'the Jews'.

The example I have taken is indeed extreme, though smaller scale events of the same kind we do witness every day.In the Islamic World the myth of the West grows darker by the hour and so happens to the idea of the Islamic countries to the West. Dangerous generalizations that are no better than the one described above!
It is important therefore never to overlook the individual behind the groups and the respect for that one individual whose rights and liberties we so much struggle to respect in our democratic societies, for that one individual prevents us from generalizing and makes the boundary between 'civilized' and 'uncivilized'.
Muslim Academy, is an online institution focused on '"fostering brotherhood through mutual understanding" by 'bridging the cultural divide between the Islamic World and the West through mutual exchange and education".

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