On Analogies

One comment at P.Z. Myers’ post on the Colbert thing hits my annoyance over how some people treat and argue against analogies. Here’s the comment from Kichae almost in full:

One of the things that has gone completely ignored in almost everything I’ve read on this is that racism has context, and the context of anti-Asian racism is different from the context of anti-Black racism is different from anti-Native American racism. It’s all racism, but the historical context can vary wildly depending on against whom someone is being racist against. Yes, there are many, many simularities, and the underlying goal is to dehumanize entire groups of people in order to justify the continued poor treatment of them by the socially dominant culture, but there are devils in those details.

In North America, anti-Black racism carries the context of having been used to justify slavery. Anti-Asian racism comes with the baggage of having been used to justify internment camps and their “expendability” as general labourors during the American and Canadian expansion west. Anti-Indian racism has been used to justify colonialism and the continued colonization of Indian territories.

By equating anti-Asian racism with anti-Indian racism, Colbert and his staff effectively equated the contexts of anti-Asian racism and anti-Indian racism, and they’re no more equivalent than the contexts of anti-Black racism and anti-Arab racism.

I can’t, and won’t even bother to pretend to try, to speak for the first peoples of the US, but here in Canada one of the larger goals of our First Nations is, and has been for a long time now, cultural and legal quasi-independence. They’re looking to be respected, but they’re not necessarily looking for seamless social inclusion. They want their rights, and their lands, and their cultures back. They’re a colonized people with others from all over the world squatting on their lands, and they want that fact recognized. You can’t say the same thing about people of Asian descent in North America, or people of European or African descent. Canada’s indigenous population isn’t just looking for equal footing and equal opportunity. It’s also looking to have its legal autonomy recognized, and having their lands recognized as states-within-a-state.

If any of that is true for the US’s indigenous populations, all of that is being completely washed over.

The complaint here seems to be that if Colbert and his staff are using that as some kind of analogy — and in the satire case they are highlighting the absurdity but are indeed claiming doing that is analogous to what Snyder did — then they are making the two cases equivalent, which can only mean the same in every way that’s important. But there are important or meaningful differences between the two cases. Therefore, the analogy is a bad one and they shouldn’t have done that, and specifically here it is bad because it washes over important things that need to be addressed at some point.

This is the style of arguing against analogy that is becoming more and more common in Internet discussions, and is an incredibly bad way of doing it: find one difference, point out that difference, and declare victory over the analogy. Except that it doesn’t work that way. No one thinks that when you make an analogy or an argument by analogy that you are claiming that all aspects are the same, or even all meaningful ones. What you are saying is that wrt the specific issue you are talking about, the two cases are similar enough that you can apply a conclusion from one to the other, meaning that if, say, you’d consider the name in one case incredibly stupid, you should consider it incredibly stupid as well. Thus, in order to make an appropriate argument against the analogy by appealing to a difference, you have to show why those differences matter to the topic under discussion, and not just leave it as a difference or point out that it would matter when you were talking about something that you … aren’t talking about right now.

So, looking at the context of Colbert’s comment on Snyder, what about legal autonomy or state-within-a-state or any of that is relevant to the point that you aren’t demonstrating your sensitivity by relying on the exact stereotype that you are being called insensitive over? Surely we can agree that all we need is an insensitive or offensive caricature to make that work, right? Which the example has. So, then, why do all of those differences matter in this case?

‘Cause if we have to have the cases be exactly identical, then the only thing we could make analogies to would be the thing itself … which would make for rather useless analogies.

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