Analogies are a powerful aid to the truth-seeker. By comparing two relevantly similar situations, you can move from conclusions about one to conclusions about the other. Analogies can help expose inconsistencies: (‘how would you react if these accusations were being made against Bill Clinton rather than Donald Trump?’) or to help make a difficult or complex point more understandable. C.S. Lewis’s BBC radio lectures that make up his book Mere Christianity are full of analogies, and he would have been a far worse apologist if he’d been somehow blocked from using them. Philosophers use analogies constantly, and we’d similarly suffer if deprived of them – as, I think, would discussions and arguments in society at large.
What’s that you say? Blocked from using analogies? How would such a thing happen? Well, dear reader, I think that such a thing is already happening: not by some bizarre act of government censorship, but through a very stupid and increasingly widespread error. You find it on Twitter and Facebook, yes, but also in national newspapers and RTÉ. And by crippling our ability to use analogies, it’s making it harder for any of us to have meaningful debates.
What is this error? I’m going to call it the Standard Analogy Mistake, or SAM for short. Whenever a person in SAM’s evil grip sees an analogy that makes a point they don’t like, they act as if the analogy-maker is comparing two situations in some respect other than the one that the analogy-maker intended. They then use this comparison to discredit the analogiser as offensive or stupid, thus avoiding having to engage with any of their actual points.
If that sounds very dry, let me make it more vivid, imagine with me a scene in the assembly in ancient Athens:
Socrates: “… and that is why I humbly submit that we should lower the speed limit for chariots in central Athens to one hundred and sixty stadions per hour.”
Thrasymachus: “Hah! Socrates is at it again! Socrates, you timid fool: if you don’t like speeding, simply don’t speed! (CROWD ROARS) Nobody is forcing you to go quickly if it’s too much for you!”
Socrates: “I am sure that I am a timid fool, Thrasymachus, but I have to ask if this line of reasoning would work in another situation.”
Thrasymachus: “Go on then.”
Socrates: “If you will humour me; what if I were to say to you ‘Thrasymachus, if you don’t like enslaving Greek citizens who are in no debt, simply do not enslave any yourself?’ Would you think that sufficed as an argument against a ban on making free citizens into slaves?”
*Narrator*: It was here that Socrates made his fatal mistake.
Thrasymachus (roaring triumphantly): “Socrates, you imbecile! Are you really comparing the question of speed limits in Athens to enslaving citizens?” (Crowd roars again)
Socrates: “No, Thrasymachus, I was merely making a point about the structure of the argum…”
Thrasymachus (howling): “Absurd, Socrates! You blithering idiot! You absolute cretin! (Crowd goes wild) Imagine thinking that going a bit fast around a corner is as bad as making a free citizen a vassal? You Buffoon!”
Crowd (in hysterics): “Down with Socrates! Down with Socrates!”
Poor old Socrates is trying to show that ‘if you don’t think x is good, just don’t do x’ is a very bad argument against banning x. He’s using an analogy to demonstrate Thrasymachus’ flawed reasoning: specifically, he is trying to show that Thrasymachus is endorsing a principle which he himself would refuse to apply in many other situations. But Thrasymachus misreads Socrates, applying the Standard Analogy Mistake and acting like Socrates is comparing breaking the speed limit to slavery in terms of moral seriousness, rather than noting that both arguments rely on the same bad principle. The crowd, instead of noticing Thrasymachus’s idiocy, are themselves gripped by SAM and cheer him on.
This happens constantly. A pro-choice speaker declares, “If you don’t want an abortion, don’t have one!” An argument as empty as Thrasymachus’s. Ideally, we could quickly dispense with this sort of thing by saying “right, great argument, pal: so if you don’t like slavery, don’t own a slave, nobody’s forcing you to” and get back to the real discussion. But if you try this, you’ll inevitably hear something like this: “I think it’s horribly offensive that you’d compare pregnant women in crisis to slaveowners”. The texters, tweeters, and probably the host will all agree, and that’s the end of the analogy. And thus, an argument that would be embarrassing from a first-year philosophy student becomes a standard trope in the national conversation.
If you want to avoid SAM, you have to either spend so long carefully qualifying your analogies that they lose most of their elegance and persuasive force; or you have to stop using them altogether. And that, dear reader, is how the analogy dies out.