Analogy Abuse (Part 1)
Bogus arguments and false comparisons
Several years ago, I had a debate with an old friend of mine - I’ll refer to him as “Crusty” so I don’t have to call him out by name. Crusty was preaching online about the horrible unfairness of wealth redistribution programs. When I had the audacity to question his position, his opening salvo was something like this:
Imagine your son was taking a class at school and had worked hard all semester, racking up enough points to earn himself an “A.” But on the last day of class, the teacher announces that she’s redistributing points from students who did really well to those who didn’t. She says it’s only fair because some students, like your son, have LOTS of points, while others have very few. Your son worked HARD for that grade but now he’s going to get a “B” because the teacher is going to redistribute points to students who didn’t work as hard. Does that seem fair to you? The students in the class who were lazy now want some of your son’s hard-earned points to get a grade they don’t deserve!
Now, I don’t care where you stand on the issue of wealth redistribution programs because that’s NOT what this post is about. What I do care about is how often (and willingly) good people use bad logic to support whatever position they’ve taken. If your position won’t stand on its own merits - if it crumbles under the slightest scrutiny - then take a closer look at your position! Don’t resort to trickery, bogus arguments, and false comparisons to shore up your potentially faulty reasoning. That’s not being a progressive leader - it’s just being deceitful, so you can stubbornly hold on to a position you can’t effectively defend.
Let’s tackle one issue:
This one analogy is so horribly wrong that I can’t possibly address everything in a single post, so I’ll tackle other elements in Analogy Abuse Part 2. For now, I want to address one main problem, which is the misuse of analogy to create a false comparison.
My initial response to my friend was, “Obviously what you’ve described isn’t fair. But social welfare programs designed to redistribute some wealth to truly needy members of our society are certainly not the same as taking points from one student and giving them to another in a classroom setting.”
“It’s exactly the same,” Crusty replied. “Redistribution is redistribution. It’s either good or it’s not. You can’t have it both ways.”
I pointed out that just because a solution is good in one situation doesn’t mean it’s good in other situations. To which he replied that if something is valuable it’s always valuable. “If I have a bar of gold, it’s valuable whether I have it in my house or in my car or on the beach. It doesn’t matter. Gold is gold and is valuable wherever it is. If you think redistribution is a valuable concept, then it should be valuable everywhere. But clearly it’s NOT valuable everywhere, which means it’s not truly valuable.”
Value is situational, not fixed:
Crusty’s conclusion is simply wrong. Let’s start by looking at his example of the value of gold. His argument rests upon the fact that gold is always valuable in every situation. But is it?
Let’s say he had his gold bar at the beach with him - an example he offered - and he ventured too far from shore while swimming. I have two things handy - a life preserver and his bar of gold. According to his logic, the bar of gold is always valuable, so I should throw him the bar of gold.
Ridiculous, right? Of course. When he’s about to drown - about to lose his life - the $100 life preserver is far more valuable to Crusty than the $60,000 bar of gold.
To use a different analogy (correctly), imagine you have a hammer and you’re replacing a hard drive in your computer. It’s really not of any use to you for that job, so does that mean a hammer has no value? Of course not! When you start replacing fence boards next week, you’re gonna want that hammer and not the little screwdriver you needed to work on your computer.
Different problem - different solution.
Why it matters:
This old friend of mine holds the same beliefs that millions of other people hold, so trying to have a conversation with him shed light on a few things. I’ll discuss my insights more in future posts about this particular conversation, but what became clear was that he truly believed the logic of his position. He wasn’t intentionally presenting a disingenuous argument - he completely believed and wholeheartedly agreed with what he was explaining to me.
From what I can tell, this is different than many Regressive or Stagnant politicians and business leaders, who know exactly how silly their arguments are. They aren’t really interested in whether redistribution programs are fair or not because they’re not interested in equity and justice. They’re interested in maintaining their own wealth and power, as well as the wealth and power of their cronies.
These people who “know better,” will offer up flimsy arguments like Crusty’s “gold is gold is gold” bullshit, knowing full well that there are plenty of people who will embrace it. Why will they embrace it? Because they’re hurting, they’re scared, and they desperately want to believe there’s an “enemy” to focus their anger upon. And who should they be angry at? Not the power brokers or wealthy fat-cats - but “the students in the class who were lazy [and] now want some of [their] hard-earned points to get a grade they don’t deserve!”
And there’s the insidious nature of that terrible analogy. We’re not talking about lazy kids who didn’t do their homework and now want a free ride - but that’s how they picture these “others” in their minds. They refuse to see that these “others” are simply people who, in most cases, have very little opportunity and face almost insurmountable structural and systemic obstacles. These aren’t lazy folks who want a free ride - they’re human beings who need temporary assistance to survive, and then need real opportunities to better themselves.
The bottom line:
Relaxed Leaders understand that analogies can be useful when explaining a new concept to someone because they relate the new concept to something familiar. It’s a great way to gradually increase a person’s understanding until they’re finally able to grasp the new concept more completely on its own.
Every analogy breaks down eventually because if it was a perfect match, then it would actually BE the new concept you’re trying to explain. But when someone uses an analogy as a weapon to explain why a concept is wrong, you need to be wary. Analogies don’t prove anything - they simply help us look at things differently.
So don’t use analogies to prove the value of your concept or belief, and don’t allow others to do it either. At some point, we have to stop playing games with analogies and false comparisons, and start talking about things based upon their actual merits.
It’s a much more difficult conversation to have but it’s something that Relaxed Leaders must learn how to do.
Would you like to read more analysis of my encounter with my ol’ friend Crusty? Then be sure to check out Analogy Abuse Part 2!