Figuring out the truth-conditions for statements about specific
people or things is relatively simple. (Relatively... if you take a
class on semantics you will learn lots more complications I'm ignoring here.)
For example, Haile is a doctor is true if and only if the person
named Haile in the relevant discourse context is a doctor. (As we saw in
the previous module, there are also presuppositions
associated with this sentence, e.g. the presupposition that there is
someone named Haile, and that there is only one person named Haile in the
context of our conversation. But it's not clear that those are part of the
truth-conditions of this utterance.)
But what about a statement like "Boys are good at
STEM"? What conditions are necessary for this statement to be true?
Is it true if only three boys in the whole world are good at STEM? Is it
only true if every boy in the world is good at STEM? Or what?
Statements like these are called generic statements,
or generics for short. Rather than stating something about a
specific entity (a person, thing, etc.), they instead describe a generalization
about some whole category of entities. And it's not actually clear what
these statements mean. We know this both from anecdotal experience
(there are many real-world examples of different people interpreting a
generic statement in different ways), and from controlled experiments,
such as one by Cimpian
and colleagues (2010), the paper from which most of the information and
concepts in this module come from.
An example of a generic statement interpreted in different ways
The statement "Americans usually see individuals" is extra-complicated
here because the word usually makes it ambiguous: does it mean that
each American usually [but not always] sees individuals, or does it
mean that most [but not all] Americans see individuals? The "not all"
and "not always" bits are themselves quantity implicatures, not necessarily
part of the literal meaning of the statement. The "each" and "most" bits are
the parts that are related to the generic statement. But since this statement
is complicated by the ambiguity, let's instead focus on the second statement,
"Chinese people see contexts". (Note that I have paraphrased this a
bit from the original, but I think this is justifiable; "Chinese and other
Asians see contexts" semantically entails "Chinese see contexts",
and it's clear that Chinese here means Chinese people.)
In the context of this discussion, "seeing context" is a certain
way of behaving in a particular sort of psychology experiment. In the experiments
that the writer of this statement is describing (and that the rest of the blog
post is criticizing), people see a video of fish swimming around in a tank, where
one fish is more salient (bigger, or a different color, or whatever) than the
others, and the person watching the video is asked to describe the scene. Some people describe
what the salient fish is doing; other people describe other aspects of the video,
like the background or this other fish. This latter group of people are the ones
who supposedly "see context", according to this experiment.
The big question for us, though, is: what does "Chinese
people see context" mean? Does it mean all Chinese people see context?
Most Chinese people see context? Chinese people see context more than
some other group of people does? Seeing context is an important and defining
feature of being a Chinese person? Or what?
It is on the basis of statements like this that people make
further generalizations like "Westerners are individualist and Asians are
collectivist" (or "Western societies are individualist and Asian
societies are collectivist"). It is certainly questionable whether
the results of that fish-describing experiment license these more general
conclusions (let's not mince words, it's more than just "questionable"; it's
obviously false). But that's not the relevant point here. The important
point here is, those generic statements raise the same kinds of questions:
does "Westerners are individualist" mean all of them are, most
of them are, or what?
Further down in the comments on this same blog post, the
author of the blog post writes, "The question is whether it's in some
sense scientifically established that all Asians are
collectivist and all Westerners are individualist"
(my emphasis added). But is that the question? If you ask this
question (and if you go on to say, e.g., "I have proved that it's not
true that 'Asians are collectivist', because here I found an example of
an Asian who is not collectivist"), you are interpreting the generic
statement "Asians are collectivist" as meaning "All
Asians are collectivist.
We can find many examples, though, of generic statements
that people consider "true" even though a corresponding "all"
statement is certainly not true. For example: "Ducks lay eggs".
People widely consider this to be true. But it certainly is not the case
that all ducks lay eggs. Male ducks don't lay eggs; baby ducks
don't lay eggs; ducks that are too sick, old, or injured to lay eggs
don't lay eggs. So, most ducks don't lay eggs. Similarly,
Cimpian and colleagues point out that people usually judge the sentence
"Mosquitos carry the West Nile virus" as true, even though only
about 1% of mosquitos actually carry it.
The same applies for the present example. It is likely
that many people would judge sentences like "Chinese people see
context" or "Asians are collectivist" as true, even
based on just a few supporting examples. But on the other hand,
people might then take those same sentences to mean that all
Chinese people see context or that all Asians are collectivist.
The "asymmetry" of generics
This example demonstrates a common "asymmetry" in how
generics are interpreted: we don't need much evidence to accept a
generic as true, but when we have to actually interpret it we think
it refers to nearly all of the things in the category. Hence the title
of Cimpian and colleagues' paper:
"Generic statements require little evidence for acceptance but have
In their research, they gave people generic
statements about made-up things, like "Lorches have purple
feathers" (there's no such thing as a lorch!). Along with those
statements, they provided statistical information, such as "30%
of lorches have purple feathers", and then asked them if the generic
statement ("Lorches have purple feathers") was true. They
found that people tend to accept these statements as true even
when the actual percentage of lorches with purple feathers is not
very high, e.g. around 50%. (And people were even more willing to
accept these if the feature being described is dangerous, distinctive,
or otherwise striking and attention-grabbing; recall that, as we
saw above, people believe "Mosquitos carry West Nile virus"
is true even though only 1% of mosquitos do!) Thus the first half
of this asymmetry: "generic statements require little evidence
for acceptance". We are often willing to accept a generic statement
(like "Boys are good at STEM", "Asians are collectivist", or "Lorches
have purple feathers") based on only a few examples.
In this same experiment, the researchers also had
people interpret what they think the generic sentence means—i.e.,
they asked, "What percentage of lorches do you think have purple
feathers?" People reliably estimated a much higher percentage than
what they needed to accept the statement as true. For example,
people might accept the statement "Lorches have purple feathers"
as true when just 70% of lorches have purple feathers; but if you tell
people "Lorches have purple feathers" and then ask them
what percentage of lorches they think have purple feathers, they will
guess that 95% do! Thus the second half of this asymmetry: "generic
statements have powerful implications". When we hear a generic
statement like "Boys are good at STEM", "Asians are collectivist",
or "Lorches have purple feathers", we often interpret it as saying
something about almost all boys/Asians/lorches.
Real-world disagreements over generic statements
These properties of generic statements make them a
common source of controversy, especially in political discourse.
They can be used to suggest very broad generalizations, but they
don't require very much evidence, and thus they can be pretty easily
defended if someone criticizes them. Like we saw in our initial
example above: if someone interprets "Asians are collectivist"
as meaning that all Asians are collectivist and then brings up some
compelling evidence that not all Asians are collectivist,
someone else could respond by saying "Well, I never said that all
of them are!"
For example, in debates over responses to the COVID-19
pandemic, we have all heard many statements along the lines of
"Travel restrictions are an effective way to stop the spread of
the virus" or "Vaccines work!" Generic statements like these are
difficult to argue against because the meaning of generics is
fuzzy. (I am not raising this example to suggest that vaccines are
bad—I myself am vaccinated and I encourage everyone to get
vaccinated if they are able—but merely to point out that
generic statements come from everywhere on the political
spectrum and not just from the people we think are manipulative
bad actors. It's easy to use pragmatics concepts to criticize
the language of people we don't like or don't agree with, but
it's important to apply the same scrutiny to our own "team" as
For another example, let's consider one of the
first and most-remembered of many controversies in Donald Trump's
2015-2016 United States presidential campaign. Describing people
who immigrate from Mexico to the US (it's not clear to me if he
was talking about all Mexican immigrants or just undocumented
Mexican immigrants), Trump said, "They're
bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some,
I assume, are good people." These remarks were widely
criticized, as they should be, but also prompted widespread
debate over what they actually meant. Many people incorrectly
claimed that Trump said all undocumented Mexican immigrants
(or even "all
Mexicans") are rapists. But he didn't actually say that;
he said a generic statement. Thus, in response to those
criticisms, Trump supporters often replied, "He didn't say
they all are!". And in fact they were right; the
last little bit of the quote makes that explicit (as long
as we adopt the extra assumption that "good people" are
not rapists; this seems like a very reasonable assumption to me).
My point here is not that what Trump said was good; it certainly
was not, for other reasons (e.g., due to the Gricean principle
of relevance, the fact that these characteristics are the ones
he thought important to highlight certainly says something, and
there is no doubt that these and similar remarks incited lots
of anti-Latinx and anti-immigrant sentiment and hate crimes
throughout the country). My point, rather, is that many
of the arguments about generic statements end up missing
these other points, because people interpret these statements
in different ways and end up talking around one another.
The ability to make a strong statement
while leaving yourself some wiggle room and ability to back
out of that statement is one of the things that makes
generic statements so powerful (and so dangerous). In fact,
this characteristic is not unique to generic statements; as
we will see in the "Benefits of indirect
utterances" module near the end of class, this ability is
one of the main reasons language has pragmatics at all.
As we noted above, people are even more willing to accept a
generic statement as true with little evidence if the statement
is about a feature that is dangerous, distinctive, or "striking".
In other words, people might normally accept "Morseths have silver
fur" (this is another example from Cimpian et al., 2010)
as true if actually 70% of morseths have silver fur; but if they are
first told that morseth's silver fur is dangerous because it sheds
air particles that can cause breathing difficulty, then they might
accept "Morseths have silver fur" as true even if just 30%
or even just 10% of morseths have silver fur! Lazaridou-Chatzigoga
and colleagues (2019) further showed that even young children
show this bias: children are more likely to make generalizations
based on generic statements about "striking" features than on
generic statements about "neutral" features.
Why do you think this happens? What communicative purpose do you think
it serves? And how could this make generic statements extra dangerous
(or, at least, extra prone to misinterpretation)?