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Ali: The Limits Of Analogy

10/04/10 7:55AM By Saleem Ali
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(HOST) Commentator Saleem Ali says that the current trend toward extreme political discourse may be related to something he calls, "The Perils of Comparisons."

(ALI) While listening to media reports about the vile nature of many current election campaigns, it occurred to me that there is a fundamental persuasive factor at play in much of the rhetoric - the power of analogy and comparison. Candidates are comparing themselves to great leaders while dismissing their opponents through comparison to despicable historic characters.   One agonizing question is often posed to pacifists: how would you contain a menace like Hitler without warfare? The next step in the argument is that leaders such as Iran's Ahmadinejad are comparable to Hitler and hence must be dealt with in a similar fashion. The power of analogy has even fused secular ideologies such as Fascism with contemporary theological movements to coin phrases like 'Islamo-fascism'. Five years ago US congressman Newt Gingrich compared then President George W. Bush to Abraham Lincoln and called for congress to "pass an act that recognizes that we are entering World War III." This bold assertion gains legitimacy from historical comparisons for only in the World Wars could we get the unequivocal mandate to "defeat our enemies - not accommodate, understand or negotiate with them - but defeat them".

On the other side, Al Qaeda too draws strength from terrible analogies going back in Islamic history. The use of the word 'crusade' by some US policy makers was quickly exploited by Islamists to show how the comparison might be taken literally as a clash between Christiandom and Islam.  The anti-war movement is similarly capitalizing on the human proclivity for comparative rhetoric. Iraq is being compared to Vietnam and the 'war on terror' branded a vacuous label like the 'war on drugs'. So if all sides are abusing analogical reasoning, might this in itself neutralize the effect?

It is far too easy for players on all sides to selectively resurrect destructive memories to fuel fear and rage. However, despite all the clichés, history rarely repeats itself. Our lessons from history should identify patterns and causal mechanisms but not templates for policy intervention.

Analogies are so ingrained in America's educational system that there was a major furor when the educational testing service dropped analogical reasoning from its much-feared scholastic aptitude test - the SAT. As journalist, Adam Cohen, lamented soon thereafter, "A nation whose citizens cannot tell a true analogy from a false one is like... fill in your own image for precipitous decline!"

As we ponder our policy towards current conflicts, let us consider the limits of analogy more critically and not be too easily compelled to action by comparisons.

(TAG) You can find more commentaries by Saleem Ali at VPR-dot-net.
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