Empirical generalizations are a matter of common sense, and, yes, generality. Most people know that one counter example is not enough to render it false. Most people. Most people also know, by way of generalization, that general rules are bound to be interpreted in surprising ways some of the time. That’s no surprise. Since the subject of rules is human behavior, there are (1) bound to be exceptions and, (2) instances where people will test the limits of the law, and, more importantly, (3) people who refuse to understand that general rules regarding human behavior are subject to (1) and (2)–most of the time that is.
A rule about workplace speech in California (I bet you can see what’s coming) concerns speech on the employee bulletin boards and email system. Fair enough. There are rules because people abuse public fora. But things went awry (as could have been expected). Here’s what happened, in George Will’s retelling (I recommend one seek an independent source for this):
>Some African American Christian women working for Oakland’s government organized the Good News Employee Association (GNEA), which they announced with a flier describing their group as “a forum for people of Faith to express their views on the contemporary issues of the day. With respect for the Natural Family, Marriage and Family Values.”
>The flier was distributed after other employees’ groups, including those advocating gay rights, had advertised their political views and activities on the city’s e-mail system and bulletin board. When the GNEA asked for equal opportunity to communicate by that system and that board, it was denied. Furthermore, the flier they posted was taken down and destroyed by city officials, who declared it “homophobic” and disruptive.
>The city government said the flier was “determined” to promote harassment based on sexual orientation. The city warned that the flier and communications like it could result in disciplinary action “up to and including termination.”
>Effectively, the city has proscribed any speech that even one person might say questioned the gay rights agenda and therefore created what that person felt was a “hostile” environment. This, even though gay rights advocates used the city’s communication system to advertise “Happy Coming Out Day.” Yet the terms “natural family,” “marriage” and “family values” are considered intolerably inflammatory.
As usual, we make no judgment here on the merits of the case as it stands (it seems poor taste to use language you have chosen on purpose to offend any captive audience–but sometimes that is unavoidable). We would merely like to return to the whole idea of general rules which are bound to confuse some and be abused by others.
Free speech, for instance, means you can assert the false without legal penalty, but you can’t shout fire in a crowded theater. You also can’t use it threaten people with violence of one kind or another. And the limitations continue. It’s a general rule. Rules have exceptions. To think such rules have no exceptions is simply the fallacy of accident (misapplication of a general rule). To suggest, however, that the existence of those exceptions means the rule ought to be abandon is to compound that with the ignoratio elenchi (suggest an extreme conclusion follows from premises the suggest something milder).
Worse than those two things would be to put them together to arrive at a silly conclusion:
>Congress is currently trying to enact yet another “hate crime” law that would authorize enhanced punishments for crimes motivated by, among other things, sexual orientation. A coalition of African American clergy, the High Impact Leadership Coalition, opposes this, fearing it might be used “to muzzle the church.” The clergy argue that in our “litigation-prone society” the legislation would result in lawsuits having “a chilling effect” on speech and religious liberty. As the Oakland case demonstrates, that, too, is predictable.
Not really. It doesn’t demonstrate anything. The Oakland case illustrates that rules (or laws) regarding human behavior will have exceptions and that people will exploit them (sometimes illegitimately). It doesn’t show that there shouldn’t be rules. Besides, if you want to demonstrate any proposition regarding human behavior, you’ll need many many more instances. One won’t inflammatory anecdote won’t do. That’s a hasty generalization.