Cats And Dogs And Sweeping Generalizations

by Randy Murray on December 6, 2011

All cats are essentially female. Feline/female, right?

All dogs are loyal and selfless.

Except when they are not.

I am a user of sweeping generalizations. It’s something that I know that I need to work on. They are a dangerous mental trap. It is sloppy thinking and if it creeps into your writing, you’ll undermine your arguments and produce weak and unconvincing work.

Cats may love you, but they rarely like you. And they never listen to you.

Dogs desperately want to please us. Their love is unreserved.

If any of these statements make you uncomfortable, if they leave you saying, “Well, that happens to not be the case,” then you’ve been brushed over by a sweeping generalization. They’re careless statements, and simply not true in every case.

If you want to talk about cats and dogs, you can talk about your specific experience. You can refer to research and scholarship. But when you make statements like those above, you are more wrong than right.

Writers: strive for clarity. Be specific. When you don’t know something, use your experience, but be open to the possibility that you don’t understand everything about a subject.

In my experience, house cats are barely domesticated creatures. They’re fascinating, but their instincts overwhelm them at times. My cats have always had distinct personalities and exhibit more or less of the predator instinct, but are never without it. And sometimes that instinct completely overpowers them. They seem to notice the differences in a room and are compelled to explore them. They know I don’t want them up on the table, but sometimes they simply must get up there, mostly when I’m not looking. It’s pointless to try and show them something. And I’m pretty sure they reject and the names I’ve given them. They certainly don’t respond to them. They are masters of balance, in particular, the attention that they require and the amount I am able to pay them.

My dogs have been great companions. My personal theory is that we humans have evolved to be with dogs as much as they’ve evolved to be with us. Mine have shown a remarkable range of emotion, including shame, loneliness, and great joy. And remarkably, unlike cats, they can battle their instincts. I’ve seen them struggle against something that they really wanted to chase, explore, fight, or eat, but did not, because they knew that I wanted them to do something else. And that desire to do what I want trumps instinct. That’s remarkable.

When I write from my experience and don’t resort to sweeping generalizations, I find that not only is my writing stronger, but it is more convincing to readers. If I’m honest and clear about my experience, there’s little to argue with. You can say, “that’s not my experience, but I can see how you might have seen that.”

All writers would be better if they strictly limited their sweeping generalizations. That’s a generalization I can stand behind.

Copyright © 2011 Randy Murray. All Rights Reserved.

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