Shock and Awe and Analogies

Saturday, 28th January 2017

From Jan. 28, 2017

A week of shock and awe pronouncements and diktats from the US emperor-president finishes with an unconstitutional, immoral, and hypocritical directive to bar people from specific countries to enter the US. Much has and will be written about this. I’m interested here in the kinds of arguments that Trumpists use over and over again. You see them in comment threads, in interviews, and hear them in conversation. They are analogies, and specific kinds of analogies at that.

These analogies are invariably to things at the level of individual experience. They are meant to interpret difficult, strange, or outsized things in familiar terms. Examples: the response to the outcry over immigration restrictions: “would you let just anyone into your house?”. The response to macro-economic practice: “we must balance our budget, just like a family has to live within its means.” The response to social programs of various sorts: “everyone needs to look out for themselves, and not expect other people to pay for them.” The response to an acceptable president: “someone I could have a beer with.”

All of these and many more examples are analogies to a specific kind of situation – the family, and along with that, individual action. And, all these analogies are flawed. The problem with analogies is that they are always limited. When you compare two things, there are always dissimilarities as well as similarities, and trying to draw conclusions based on an analogy without recognizing the dissimilarities can be superficially persuasive but does not ultimately hold water.

Cases in point – national economies have very little resemblance to household budgets. Households can’t print money. They do not enter into multinational trade agreements. There is a reason why, in university, there are courses in microeconomics and macroeconomics. These are fundamentally different contexts.

Nations are not like families. We are not “letting people into our house”. Families have a structure of personal familiarity, which has trust built on that basis. Nations do not – they operate completely differently. Security operates differently – immigrants are in no way “part of the (national) family”.

Governing structures are not like parental structures. The president is not like a stern father (see George Lakoff for more on this). We don’t trust dad to take care of things, because dads know best. There is a reason why there are checks and balances in place.

If I was inclined to argue with Trumpists, which I am not, I would start by resisting the analogies that track back to these familiar experiences. The reliance on simplistic analogies is, in my mind, evidence of a lack of education. One thing that advanced education does is break the hold of this analogical reasoning, by allowing you to think about things outside of the immediate and familiar. Education allows you to hold back what you think you know, including these familiar contexts, in order to learn something new.

Sometimes, when I’ve tried to point these things out to Trumpists, I get an angry response. No surprise, I’m pointing out that a lack of education is a problem. Sometimes, I get people just saying “well, I don’t agree. I have a different opinion.” This is also an illegitimate response. Of course people can have opinions – and some of those opinions are wrong. Now, if someone is willing to try to defend this kind of analogy, to say that governments and nations really are exactly like families in every important way, they’re welcome to try. Facts speak otherwise. The analogies obscure more than they uncover. And, hiding behind the idea that everyone has their own opinion moves us to a different kind of dispute, one that isn’t based in reason at all, but in war. The relativism of “different opinions” means that the only way to settle a dispute is to see who is more powerful.

So, I’m not inclined to argue. I think most of these arguments are little more than stalling tactics anyway. Does that mean that we give up on convincing anyone? Does that mean that it is only war? No, there are other ways to conduct politics, and there are other ways to win, short of literal civil war. I’ll write about what that looks like soon.

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