steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

Adventures in Analogy

Thinking about the Moore-Burchill row over the last day or two, a few things have struck me about the styles of argument in play, as well as the substance. Perhaps the most interesting was the way in which the columnati of Fleet St gave each other collective permission to let fly what appears to have been a considerable pent-up hostility to trans people - although I suspect that for some that hostility was supplemented by the feeling that trans people were a convenient proxy for Lord Leveson. It will all make fascinating material for social psychologists one day (and, I hope, cringe-making reading for the writers concerned) - but I'm not a social psychologist and can't speak about that side of the matter. Instead, I want to think about a couple of problematic tactics that were used on both sides. Note, I'm not using 'problematic' here as a euphemism for 'wrong': I honestly haven't come to a final conclusion about them. I'll deal with the first here, and the second in a later post.

The first is the use of analogy. Now, analogy is a really powerful tool, as we all know. A real-world example can be much easier to understand, and to remember, than an abstract rule. More than that, analogies are also useful ways of thinking through problems. Looking at an argument from different angles, under different lights, in different costumes, can expose its weaknesses and limitations.

Some of the things that were said by the free-speech paladins seemed to beg for this kind of treatment. As one example among many let's look at Terence Blacker's choice sentence: "Would someone who has had the mental and physical courage to change sex really be upset by the appearance of the phrase 'dicks in chicks' clothing' in the press?" To Blacker, the answer is "obviously" No.

Well, there are many ways to challenge that view. The most satisfactory would involve some appeal to empathy and imagination, but these aren't always available. Another approach might be to ask, would Blacker's argument appear so reasonable if used in a different context? For example: "Since African Americans have come through slavery, lynchings and Jim Crow laws, they're hardly going to be upset by racist language." Once you put it like that, the truth of the statement isn't so obvious. In fact, it becomes obviously untrue. And, having understood why it's obviously untrue in a racial context, it's much easier to see why it's also untrue in the case of trans people.

In the recent row, analogies of this kind have been used by several people, including me. While there is never an exact equivalence between the terms of an analogy, the fit here works well, at least at first sight. It seems reasonable to try to explain the unknown by reference to the known, and although racism is not understood as well as it should be, it is probably understood better than transphobia, and has certainly had more visibility and discussion.

Analogy is pithy, punchy, immediately comprehensible, and a basic tool of argument. Why on earth would we want to do without it - or at least, without that kind of analogy? I've counted three possible reasons. The first is more to do with the nitty-gritty tactics of debating with people who may not be arguing in good faith; the other two concern matters of principle

1) It's an invitation to de-railing. As mentioned above, the terms used in an analogy are never exact, and it's always possible to divert attention to the ways they differ, even if it is irrelevant to the point being made. So, for example, one could write: "To be consistent, the people defending Burchill's right to be offensive must also be prepared to defend those who make monkey noises from the stands of football games." Personally I think that's a fair point, but one way to contest it would be to focus on the ways in which the situations differ. For example: "Ah, but she was putting it in writing, not face to face..."; "She was being offensive to a group of people, not an individual..." And so on. For another example, consider Toby Young's Twitter response here. Was Young's reply a fair one? Of course, there are occasions when the analogy really is a straw man argument, when showing why it's a straw man requires just this sort of defence. At other times, it allows an "in" to derailers. In a debating tactic that's a real weakness.

2) The second and third problems are well known, and relate to analogies with other groups that suffer abuse and discrimination. The first is the danger of entering the Oppression Olympics - using the (supposedly) relatively mild treatment dished out to some groups in order to highlight just how bad the treatment your group gets is. I try hard to avoid this, but I admit that to the casual reader there may not appear to be much difference in language between:

"To be consistent, the people defending Burchill's right to be offensive must also be prepared to defend those who make monkey noises from the stands of football games."

which focuses on the inconsistency of the bigots rather than making an invidious comparison between trans and black people, and this:

"The people defending Burchill's right to be offensive would never defend those who make monkey noises from the stands of football games."

which slips over into the Olympic arena. Am I kidding myself when I carefully avoid the latter in favour of the former? Again, we may well believe that different groups get treated better in some respects and worse than others, but in trying to sort out the truth of relative oppressions in different places and circumstances, any power the analogy had will be dissipated and lost.

3) Related to the last point is the question of intersectionality. Making comparisons (whether Olympic or otherwise) between the treatment of one oppressed group and another tends to imply that the groups are discrete, whereas there are plenty of people who are (in this case) both trans and black. More than that, the ways in which people who are both trans and black are treated is more than simply the sum of the ways that black cis and non-black trans people are treated. Suzanne Moore railed against intersectionality as an example of the intelligentsia's obsession with finicky distinctions. I plead guilty to that obsession - finicky distinctions are part of a writer's job - but in fact Moore provided an excellent example of intersectionality with her phrase "Brazilian transsexual". We might note, to begin with, that the Brazilian half of the phrase (though not ignored) has certainly received less attention than the transsexual half. But also, when you put the words together, you get something quite different from what either would give you separately. Would Moore have claimed that the body shape women are encouraged to desire is "that of a Brazilian"? No. Or "that of a transsexual"? Certainly not! But put them together into "Brazilian transsexual" and you (i.e. Moore) don't think of Brazilians who happen to be transsexual, or transsexual people who happen to be Brazilian. You think of a fetishized, exoticised image - not really a person at all. That, Ms Moore, is intersectionality at work.

So, analogy - and particularly race analogy - is not just a two-edged sword, it's a Swiss army knife!

What to do, what to do?
Tags: current affairs, gender
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