“Comparing”

I’m writing this now because I anticipate linking to it over and over again; this fallacy isn’t going anywhere.

Journalists have got very good at using the word “comparing” to turn the most innocuous statement into a gaffe, through a simple trick of equivocation. Most recently, Jeremy Corbyn is accused of “comparing” Israel and ISIS, but a search for “accused of comparing” finds many other examples. The pattern goes like this: a politician says something like “just as one doesn’t put a vampire in charge of a blood bank, one shouldn’t put the press in charge of protecting privacy”. This use of analogy is one sense of the word comparing. However, many now seem persuaded that “comparing” really means “equating”. Thus we start with someone using a vivid analogy to make a point like “you should consider someone’s partisan motivations before giving them an important responsibility” and through the magic of this word, this becomes “Politician claims Rupert Murdoch kills people and drinks their blood”, which as far as I know he doesn’t.

I’m even less of a fan of Dan Quayle than of Jeremy Corbyn, but he too fell foul of something very similar, though the word itself wasn’t used. In the 1988 vice-presidential debates, he used the example of JFK to argue that a short Congressional service need not be a bar to high office. Lloyd Bentsen replied with the now-famous put-down “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Of course Quayle was claiming no such thing; he was simply showing that the charge against him proved too much. But this deliberate misunderstanding is one of the most celebrated lines in VP debates.

The thing that’s most annoying about this is that it’s natural to reach for the most extreme example to prove your point. If we oppose vigilante justice even for murder, we certainly oppose it for littering. If we should defend the right to free speech even of Nazis, we should certainly defend it when it comes to, say, Tories. If we’re not going to hold all Saudis responsible for Osama bin Laden, we’re certainly not going to hold all Canadians responsible for Justin Bieber. To me this seems like a normal move in argument, but if I were a politician I couldn’t say any of these things, for fear of being accused of “comparing” Bieber to OBL.

Update: this comic makes a similar point very well. Update: Julia Galef discusses the comic. Thanks to Michael Keenan for both links, on FB.

Published by Paul Crowley

I'm Paul Crowley aka "ciphergoth", a cryptographer and programmer living in Mountain View, California. See also my Twitter feed, my webpages, my blogs on Dreamwidth and Livejournal, and my previous proper blog. Or mail me: paul at ciphergoth.org.

7 thoughts on ““Comparing”

  1. Maybe this is the line of thinking that gives us undeserving victims and christian non-terrorists. The public put things into categories: Successful people, losers, people like us, foreigners, nazis, one-percenters. When you make this kind of comparison, the public hear that you picked examples from two categories and tried to put them in one.

  2. just as one doesn’t put a vampire in charge of a blood bank, one shouldn’t put the press in charge of protecting privacy

    But this works because everyone agrees that blood banks are a good thing.

    If you say, ‘you shouldn’t hold Jews responsible for the state of Israel, just like you shouldn’t hold Muslims responsible for ISIS’, that analogy is saying ‘you shouldn’t hold all of group X responsible for entity-Y-which-does-bad-things-and-claims-to-represent-Xs’.

    Thing is, that analogy only works if you think that the two entities are both bad things, things that you might reasonably object to.

    If you say, ‘Don’t hate Jews because of what Israel does’ then you are accepting that the things Israel does are bad.

    Consider: would you say, ‘Don’t hate Jews because of Bagels’? Of course not, because bagels are delicious. Why would you hate anybody because of bagels? If you want to say, ‘don’t hate A because of B’ then ‘B’ has to be something legitimately bad, or the analogy doesn’t work.

    So to replace ‘Bagels’ with ‘Israel’ in the formula is to say you think Israel is bad (ie, that its actions are in some way evil, not just a legitimate democratic state defending its people and territory). It’s to say that while it might be legitimate to hate Israel, you shouldn’t transfer that hatred over to Jews. Note: this is what he was saying. Not ‘It is not legitimate to hate Israel’, but, ‘It is legitimate to hate Israel, just don’t transfer that hated to all Jews’.

    So in that sense, you are positing an equivalence between Israel and ISIS: you’re saying both are things which are bad and that it would be reasonable not to want to be associated with.

  3. Something we can all agree on is that members of the Labour Party are no more responsible for the actions of Jeremy Corbyn than Germans are responsible for the actions of Adolf Hitler.

    1. https://masscommons.wordpress.com/2012/03/15/fear-loathing-on-the-campaign-trail-make-them-deny-it/

      … The race was close and LBJ was getting worried. Finally he told his campaign manager to start a massive rumor campaign about his opponent’s life-long habit of enjoying carnal knowledge of his own barnyard sows.

      “Christ, we can’t get away calling him a pig-fucker,” the campaign manager protested. “Nobody’s going to believe a thing like that.”

      “I know,” Johnson replied. “But let’s make the sonofabitch deny it.”

  4. Am I the only person who sees that example and thinks that the next line should be, and about half the time actually would be, the journalist saying he apologizes to vampires?

    I think that the Kennedy thing was actually quite fair. Quayle was challenged that his service was inadequate. Quayle responded by comparing himself to someone extraordinary, claiming they were similar and thus the example should apply. Benson pointed out that this was, in fact, an extraordinary example that was not representative, and thus Quayle’s claim was inadequate. And sure, primarily this is just a great put-down line, but let’s face it, Quayle was totally asking for it.

    When you compare X to Y, or otherwise engage in metaphor, you are totally doing the thing you think people are being falsely accused of, especially in politics and journalism.

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