Thinking by analogy

I want to direct everybody towards “A Person Paper on Purity in Language,” by Douglas Hofstadter, which I’ve read several times now, and never ceases to impress me with its relevance, even though it was written in 1985. It begins thus:

It’s high time someone blew the whistle on all the silly prattle about revamping our language to suit the purposes of certain political fanatics. You know what I’m talking about-those who accuse speakers of English of what they call “racism.” This awkward neologism, constructed by analogy with the well-established term “sexism,” does not sit well in the ears, if I may mix my metaphors. But let us grant that in our society there may be injustices here and there in the treatment of either race from time to time, and let us even grant these people their terms “racism” and “racist.” How valid, however, are the claims of the self-proclaimed “black libbers,” or “negrists”-those who would radically change our language in order to “liberate” us poor dupes from its supposed racist bias?

Most of the clamor,as you certainly know by now, revolves around the age-old usage of the noun “white” and words built from it, such as chairwhite, mailwhite, repairwhite, clergywhite, middlewhite, Frenchwhite, forewhite, whitepower, whiteslaughter, oneupuwhiteship, straw white, whitehandle, and so on. The negrists claim that using the word “white,” either on its own or as a component, to talk about all the members of the human species is somehow degrading to blacks and reinforces racism. Therefore the libbers propose that we substitute “person” everywhere where “white” now occurs. Sensitive speakers of our secretary tongue of course find this preposterous. There is great beauty to a phrase such as “All whites are created equal.” Our forebosses who framed the Declaration of Independence well understood the poetry of our language. Think how ugly it would be to say “All persons are created equal,” or “All whites and blacks are created equal.” Besides, as any schoolwhitey can tell you, such phrases are redundant. In most contexts, it is self-evident when “white” is being used in an inclusive sense, in which case it subsumes members of the darker race just as much as fairskins.

It’s a bit long, but I strongly recommend reading the whole thing. The metaphor only grows more powerful, covering the use of gendered pronouns, and “Mrs” and “Miss” for women but only “Mr” for men, and changing one’s name upon marriage, and the tendency to refer to adult women as “girls,” and more! Here, have a second link to it!

Now I’m linking this not only because I think it’s well-written (and especially useful as an eye-opener for those who don’t think sexist language is important), but also because I’ve been thinking a lot about the uses of analogies to highlight systematic problems. When I posted about environmentalism earlier, for example, I frequently used analogies to the feminist movement to articulate my thoughts about the environmental movement. To quote myself:

I don’t want to fall into the “WHAT ABOUT WOMEN IN SAUDI ARABIA” sort of argument that feminists face when they try to talk about comic books– I get that talking about the little things does not preclude talking about the big things, and that it’s important to pay attention on both.  But this seems somehow… not even one of the little things. As if a feminist was trying to complain about women no longer being put on a pedestal. It’s missing the point, somehow, aiming for a goal other than the one that out society needs.

I was trying to articulate that I didn’t object to the innovations in question merely because they were small, but because I thought they were missing the point entirely; any sustainable action, no matter how small, would be worthwhile, but something selling itself as “green!” that didn’t work towards sustainability would be problematic. I was having trouble expressing that idea, though, since I am not as well-versed in environmental issues, so I went back to something I did understand, and which I thought my readers would be more likely to understand, and tried to reason from there. I wasn’t totally successful (the comments were a hoot!) but that was my goal, and my reasoning behind using the feminist movement as an analogy.

I find that I also try to work from my feminist framework to understand other “isms” which I do not directly experience. But this is where I start checking myself. I truly do think that thinking by analogy can be enlightening and not appropriation, and the article I began with is an example of a usage I find acceptable. But I could be totally, totally off base. There are definitely example of “analogies” being drawn between oppressions (especially using the black civil rights movement!) that are not acceptable. For example: Gay is the new Black!

The biggest flaw that I can identify in usages like this is the way that they pretend the black civil rights movement is over, which is a bit of a lol/sob situation. Barack Obama did not end racism! Seriously! I may still have some embarrassingly obvious moments where my privilege is showing (like, possibly, this post!), but at least I don’t try to pretend I don’t have privilege. Any attempts to draw parallels between the black civil rights movement and any subsequent civil rights movement is going to be fatally flawed (and probably worthless) if it doesn’t accommodate the fact that we’re not done yet.

But even more importantly, even though all oppression is connected, all oppression is not the same. The analogies break down when you get into the details. Using analogies like the ones I’ve mentioned earlier might be useful as an introduction to one’s privilege, but they have to be replaced with an actual understanding of the topic at hand for the conversation to go farther. Trying to only think via analogy can be seriously harmful.

Does the essay I started with fall into that category? I’m not sure. It’s definitely working from the assumption that “we all know that Racism Is Bad,” but I’m not sure that it’s positing that racism is gone. I’m not sure that saying “we all know Racism Is Bad” is the same as saying “racism is fixed now”– in fact, my impression is that one of the problems with eradicating racism is that We All Know Racism Is Bad, and therefore any attempt to say “that was pretty racist” gets translated to “you are A Racist, and therefore Evil!” and shuts down the conversation. So my first response is that the essay is OK on that level, but what about the fact that some of the instances it uses– especially gendered pronouns– were not oppressions that (male) people of color faced? Is that minimizing the ways they they were (and are!) oppressed, making it look like sexism is somehow worse or more widespread? Are we getting into an Oppression Olympics here? (The first half of the link is more relevant, though the whole thing is good.) But the whole point is revealing that they are oppressive acts, by applying them along race lines instead of sex lines, to trigger our Racism Is Bad response. This particular essay isn’t trying to say anything about racial oppression; it’s assuming we already know how it happens. Maybe. Is it only my privilege that makes an essay that relies so much on race-related language seem to somehow be “not about race” to me?

I guess my big question is, when is thinking via analogy helpful, and when is it hurtful? Is it ever all one or the other?

My gut response is that of course you have to engage directly with the voices in question to get to the actual paradigm shift, the real understanding. But, however easy it is for an analogy to be misguided and hurtful, there are exceptions, and it can be a good way to start things, by forcing people to realize that their paradigm isn’t quite right.

But, of course, I could be way off base. What do you think?

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4 Responses to Thinking by analogy

  1. Heavy Armor says:

    I think the main problem is that the conversations never begin with the analogy, but rather ends them once offered. This is because, far too often, the analogy is never anything but the “Civil Rights Movement” of the 1960s when it comes to the comparison of other rights involvement.

    On top of this, many of the conversations regarding the CRM tend to be those trying to “shame” PoC, particularly African-Americans, into becoming the tokens of their own movement(s) by invoking the fact that “their own” people were marching with AAs at the time.

    The thinking by analogy, especially when the analogy is on race, when the “modern” subject is not, is not only hurtful and offensive, it is non-productive. This is because the analogy takes the wrong approach, uses incomplete evidence, and draws a bad conclusion, especially when the analogy somehow involves African-Americans on a wide scale. It goes doubly wrong when gender or sexual preference is on the other end – and then the inevitable race in the Oppression Olympics is on again. Far too many people walk away mad, and no one seems to apply the right kind of cognitive thinking.

    Then everyone walks away, and the same oppressive structure for everyone still exists.

    • Crowfoot says:

      I would agree (er, for what that’s worth) that analogies should not be the ending of the conversation. I mean, they’re really just useful in illustrating an underlying theme or dynamic by using another dynamic that the listener might either be aware of or might understand.

      It sounds like what you’re describing, Heavy Armor, is the context in which these analogies are used? Rather than the idea of using an analogy in general? I’ll admit I’m not that familiar with situations where the use of the CRM was used to shame PoC (duh, apart from the article eloriane linked to – and that’s my privilege showing for sure). I’ll also admit that I’m confused as to how analogies linking race to other oppressions is necessarily offensive? Which is not to say that these analogies when commonly used aren’t offensive – I just wonder if it’s the act of using analogies, or the way that analogy is used? I think, too, that a lot of people just don’t get what the word “analogy” actually means. “This thing is kind of like that thing, or that part of that thing, do you see the pattern?” Analogies are not equivocations! It should be seen as vaguely similar but in this or that way only, not as Thing A is just like Thing B.

      I apologize for my obtuseness and I’m posting from a noisy work, which isn’t helping :-/ I’ll think on this some more.

  2. Heavy Armor says:

    No obtuseness on your part here, Crowfoot.

    After thinking about this for a little bit, I think that what we are really looking for is not an analogy, but a correlation.

    The analogy, which is simply “Oppression State A because of Viewpoint + Power State B” is like “Oppression State C because of Structure D”, in spite of any intentions otherwise, attempts to equalize the subjects – whether the original intent was to do so or not. It also has the effect of not really showing how the two are linked, even if only tangentially. If you have to really dig deep to explain the connection between “Viewpoint + Power State B” and “Structure D,” especially if the people or power involved are not generally the same group, then the point gets lost because the analogy then fails to place both Oppression States A and C into their proper contexts.

    The correlation, on the other hand, posits “Oppressive State A happens” AND “Oppressive Method B occurs” because of “Structure C, Viewpoint D, and/or Illegal/Bad Law E.” What this does is acknowledge both states occurring under the same roof, for different individual reasons, but are recognized as parts of the same problem.

    At least, this is how I’m looking at it now. I could be completely wrong (It wouldn’t be the first time, either).

    • Crowfoot says:

      Ah! A correlation, yes. That does make more sense doesn’t it? You bring up some excellent points. I would still suspect that a correlation must be the beginning of a conversation and be used only as a tool of illustrating something, and one needs to be careful of the context, etc, but correlating similarities in oppressions might be more effective and less likely to become problematic. I can see, now, how analogies can inadvertently create a sense of equalizing between the two, and that then makes invisible the ways in which they are different. Personally, I still don’t have a problem with analogies as I make a conscious point of seeing them as only highlighting ways in which a certain dynamic might be similar – I see analogies as inherently limited in scope. Of course, not everyone sees it the same way so as a teaching tool for others it might end up creating more problems than it solves?

      With regard to the article eloriane twice linked to, I thought the “turn around” method of illustrating how bigoted language works was successful. If there is (likely inadvertent) racism in that article, I think it might be the way the author might not realize how white-centric our language patterns can be? While we don’t say “all whites are created equal” and assume it includes blacks, we do tend to only describe someone’s colour if they’re not white, hence leaving white as the default. Of course, this is a broad generalization across the culture as a whole – I would imagine people in African-American communities only describe someone’s colour when they’re white? So the racism, if there, in that piece seems more about the subtle ways we are euro-centric that he didn’t seem to quite take into account? What I found, as I read it, that it was very good for illustrating the injustice and inequality of both sexism and racism, and not just in language.

      But I also suspect that a part of why making analogies (or even correlations?) to the Civil Rights Movement becomes problematic is in the way it subtly others the African-American struggle? A kind of exotic-oppressed-cultural-battle. I don’t know if I’m explaining this right. I also suspect that a part of why analogies can be problematic is how they’re usually addressed to people who apparently “get” racism, but likely don’t? I mean, I know a lot of so-called progressives who Know Racism Is Bad but still do/say stupid racist crap. So the issue then becomes arguing with a very defensive person about what is or isn’t racism! Of course, this happens with sexism as well – but with sexism, it appears to me one is more likely to hear “so what? whatever, man” when you bring it up. Discussions on racism with whites tends to bring up a lot of “oh racism is bad – but that’s not racist.” And still no progress is made. (the latter actually sounds really frustrating)

      Does that make sense?

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