ED vs. LOGICAL FALLACIES, PART 17: FALSE ANALOGY

Individuals who spend any appreciable amount of time around me understand that I love reasoning via analogy. It has many advantages as a rhetorical tactic: it is powerful when done well, easily communicated, and full of potential for sarcastic humor. I'm sold.

Making a valid analogy, however, involves more than simply comparing two things that share a common characteristic. Comparing me to Michael Jordan works on some level. We're both male. We're both residents of the Chicago area. We both play basketball on occasion. We're both over 6'3". Nonetheless, subbing His Airness in place of Ed in an analogy isn't even remotely appropriate – unless the point being made specifically deals with one of the (few) things we share in common. And even then it's probably going to be a hell of a stretch.

To far too many of our Very Serious Professional Commentators, finding one superficial similarity is enough to mash the gas pedal on the Analogymobile. Take, for example, Michael Medved on Obama's pastor. Yes, Howie Kurtz at CNN apparently thought Michael "Slavery Wasn't So Bad" Medved was the best person to offer thought-provoking commentary on this racially-charged subject.

(The) truth is that people responded indignantly to Reverend Wright not because he’s black. It’s not about race, it’s not because of the racial outlook of the church, which very specifically defines itself as an afrocentric church and emphasizes blackness, blackness, blackness.

They didn’t respond to it that way. If a white pastor had made the comments that Jeremiah Wright had made, people would have been equally indignant (emphasis added).

Let's ignore for the moment how laden with non sequiturs this is. He's reading minds (claiming to know why "people" responded as "they" did), making unsupported conclusions ("It's not about race"), double-bagging hypotheticals (talking about how the public would hypothetically react to a hypothetical white pastor) and mischaracterizing his subject (I bet the church thinks of itself as being about, oh, maybe "Jesus" more than blackness). Let's let him slide on that. The underlying analogy is more ridiculous.

Black Pastor making these comments = White Pastor making same comments. The issue here, Medved insists, is the content of the speech. So who made the comments is irrelevant. Race is simply not an issue.

Unfortunately, black and white people are not interchangeable parts in the United States. When a black pastor makes comments specifically about race in a public forum it is beyond silly to claim that race simply isn't in the equation – especially when, as Medved just claimed, he preaches at the First Blacknited Blackptist Black Church of Blackness. So Medved's assertions that race is irrelevant are, on their face, ludicrous. Furthermore, the reaction to this speech is taking place in the context of a partisan political process. This is an event in the course of a competitive election. Medved is happy to wheedle on about why race is not a factor but he ignores partisanship. In the midst of a heated election, how is partisanship not a determinant of how "people" are reacting? Maybe his mind-reading powers ran out before he could divine the answer.

A good analogy would preserve the two crucial components of the equation: the speaker and his comments. Rather than shitting on the public's intelligence with this Red Herring discussion about whether or not this is "about race," a half-decent commentator might make a half-decent analogy that contributes to understanding the public and media response to the comments. Consider these two questions:

Would the reaction be the same if the pastor was white?

Would the reaction be the same if the pastor was supporting McCain?

Which one of those adds to a discussion of the dynamics of partisan competition and this election? Which one is a weak effort by a one-note commentator to grind his sole ax?