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March 30, 2020

Overgeneralization: a Silent Killer in the Path of Friendship and Social Dealing

It is out of question that we Myanmar are Happy-go-lucky people. We love to lead a carefree life. We hate worry, burden and hard work that may deter us from being jolly. It is our typical lifestyle especially when seen from its bright side. What about the other way round? In practicality, we cannot avoid worry, burden, effort and hardship in our everyday life. We have to try to overcome them. As we hate hardship, we happen to take it easy. That means, for example, when we hear something, without considering much, we are in the habit of taking it for true fact. It is where we start to go wrong and where the habit of overgeneralization originates. Overgeneralization stems from lack of rational thinking which can again be obtained by the application of knowledge and experience. All of these need labor. When we hate labor or hard work, it implies that we give way to overgeneralization. On account of overgeneralization, I had once lost one of my dear friends.
His name is Aung Myat but we his friends used to call him “Law She” (a gangly boy) as he was comparatively gangling among us. He and I had much in common; the same hobby, the same school, the same ward, and even the same birthday. In addition, there was a general agreement drawn among us that we should act manly to one another without keeping anything secret. As for our studies, we grouped together and read helping one another whenever there was a problem. My memory is still fresh that it was the first day of July 1994 that we were selected to compete in essay competition at the district level. As all of us were outstanding, we all had to participate in that competition. We had two weeks for preparation and our teacher had been guiding us. As my hobby is book-keeping, I had my home library where so many books of prize-winning essays were kept for reference. I invited all of my friends there and permitted them to use any book they liked. But it was Aung Myat who paid the most frequent visit to me during those days. I had also prepared myself with notes from various sources available. I had been compiling those notes since long. I had also kept the notes on one shelf of my library. I found Aung Myat perusing them so often. On the last day of the first week, I was taken seriously ill and he visited me. Shortly after he had gone, I asked my sister to bring my prepared notes to me. But they were gone. One of my nieces confirmed that she had just seen my friend leaving with those notes kept at the armpit. I went wild with anger and sent for him. He did not show up but flatly denied and even swore he had never seen them before. My sister said so. As a result, I got only the consolation prize but he stood first. The remaining friends had excommunicated him since they heard of the missing notes.
On the last day of the school year, I received a parcel presented by Aung Myat. He had moved to another town soon after the event. When unfolded, I found the trophy of the first prize and a copy of his prize winning essay. I studied it very carefully over and over again. But I found no hints of my notes. Instead, it was really his authenticity I had to admit. For, I had been often told of how he would organize and write his essay. But I had no idea how things went wrong between us. Surely, I was wrong to have jumped so fast to conclude that he stole my notes. Whenever I read an essay, I remember him. But we cannot reconcile again as he had died of lungs cancer two years ago.
In the above case, my sister was still very young and she might be wrong. I foolishly skipped that fact. Instead, I mistook my friend for the one who stole my notes. It was my sheer irrationality that I did not bother to think twice before making up my mind that he must be the one. I was ready to entertain my own presupposition, one of the multi-facets of overgeneralization.
Just take a look around, undeniably you will witness that many fall prey to that bad habit. In general, we think that foreigners are smart (you may often see a foreigner or two surrounded by our local people), that Karen and Chin people are good at English, that Shan and people from Yaw or Saw can spell a curse upon us when they are not in good mood with us, that some of our national races are ego-centric, that we Myanmar are lazy and ill-disciplined and there will be so many “that”. Surely, a major problem or conflict arises when these “in-general” become “in-particular”. Indeed, we will come to know only after a few minutes of consideration and rational thinking that not every foreigner can be smart simply because they are human beings as we are, that everybody can be good at any language after sufficient exposure, that people from Yaw and Saw are very simple and black magic is foreign to them, and that nobody can always be good or bad.
No man is an island as Rene Descartes said.  No one can live alone. We love company as cats loves comfort. Therefore, an English sage Sir Francis Bacon said in one of his essays named “Of Friendship”-“whosoever delights in solitude is either a wild beast or a god”. We live in community. When overgeneralization is deep-rooted in a society with a wide range of ethnic and religious diversity, communal clash is very likely. When a piece of news is in the air, we need to make sure whether it comes from a reliable source. Even when it really does, we should wait to hear what kinds of actions are being taken for or against the case in question. Therefore, we should leave no place for rumors that may pop up all the time whether we take heed of them or not. For rational thinking that can get rid of overgeneralization, we should read and think. It is simple because Life is too short to be little and to be misled by such meaningless habit.

The author of this article is a freelance translator, writer and independent researcher on Myanmar Culture and History.

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