BPSDBIf the only image we can hope to evoke by using certain references is that of the most cartoonish caricature of iconic figures, then we lose an important element of our ability to learn from history. Is is there any point to even trying? or should such analogies and references simply be avoided because they are more likely to be counterproductive?
That question comes about from an exchange that followed the first comment on my post Climate Deniers demand Stalinist style political show trial:
Argh! I don’t like it when people compare other people to Stalin, so please don’t do that.
From that came an agreement to blog back and forth on the use of particularly charged icons as analogies or metaphors, not as a debate, but rather as “meditations that seek to explore the issue fully.”
The exchange has begun with Frankbi’s “A word on Stalin, Galileo, and all that.” I hope do no injustice if I say his main point is that “…such comparisons tend to be overused, and overblown.” In the spirit of our non-debate I will not respond directly at this time. Indeed I suspect a number of threads may develop independently before there is apparent convergence.
For myself I have to return to my original purpose in using a particular analogy which is to communicate a particular idea. At the risk of stating the obvious, if the analogy aids in that, then it should be used. If it doesn’t, or even impedes, then it should not. Beyond that I have no particular reservations about drawing whatever parallels are appropriate. Would that it were as easy to implement as it is to state.
My reference to Stalin era was meant to move away from the relatively benign image of the Scopes Monkey Trial and draw peoples attention to what I saw as some of darker elements of the story. In Frankbi’s case I clearly failed in that for him the reference to Stalin eclipsed my point entirely. Which raises several interesting issues.
First, how typical is Frankbi’s reaction? No message can be for everyone and attempting to please everyone is a recipe for failure, but then so is pleasing no one. Of the people that I perceive myself as speaking to, how many were put off by the imagery? and how many took from it what I wanted them to? Clearly I failed unless the image made the point more forcefully for a majority of those people.
Second, regardless of the intended target audience, I think we do have to consider how what we say and do affects the broader public. Even if my work reaches every member of the intended audience in exactly the way I had wanted, can I consider it successful if it also alienated as many or more other people? At least given that my broad goal is greater public awareness of the issues.
Third, what did people get from the analogy? For Frankbi the Stalin image was equated to a desire to liquidate all dissidents. Is that what it meant for others? and if not that, what then? In using particular imagery we imagine others will get from it what we do, but that assumption simply does not hold.
I tried to be very careful in specifying that I was underscoring only certain parallels with the Stalin era show trials and no more. At no point did I suggest anyone was analogous to Stalin himself, and even went as far as to specifically state that I did not believe there was any intent to do harm to individuals, but so what? Just because I said those things doesn’t mean anybody understood them.
The early Usenet version of Godwin’s Law is that “if you mention Hitler or Nazis in a post, you’ve automatically ended whatever discussion you were taking part in.” Not because of some authority declaring it over, but because things have clearly devolved to a point of such silliness that further discussion is pointless.
It is precisely because such a comparison or reference may sometimes be appropriate, Godwin has argued, that overuse of Nazi and Hitler comparisons should be avoided, because it robs the valid comparisons of their impact.
There is a certain trivial futility to Godwin’s cautions. Although “may sometimes be appropriate” is certainly true, who decides when it is appropriate? Since the ones who most often decide that it is appropriate are the ones most likely to use it inappropriately, it is a given that all such references will always be overused. The one’s who absolutely will not cooperate are the very ones who we need to cooperate for it to have the desired effect; Catch 22.
If the only image one can hope to evoke is that of the most cartoonish caricature of historical figures then the these figures lie outside the realm of useful images. We lose a great deal if the lessons we can draw from history are limited to only the most general perception that people have of a particular icon. Gandhi, Stalin, Martin Luther King Jr, etc were all complex, multi-faceted people who changed over time. There is much we can learn about what each eventually became by looking at that progress, but how do we share that learning if the mere mention of their name evokes only a particular static, monochromatic image that overshadows the point we are trying to make?
Part of me wants to argue the issue of context. When I am called ‘enviro-Nazis’ (again) by some troll I just ignore it. I realize that in most cases I am dealing with someone who could not even give me the correct dates for WWII, much less have a clue as to what the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei has to do with the Nazis (ie that’s the proper name for the Nazis Party).
However, if one of the many bloggers I follow were to liken something to the Khemer Rouge policies or Pinochet’s Chile I would tend to sit up and read more closely since I believe these people would not do so lightly. My assumption would be that they have some significant point to make and my expectation would be that they spell it out.
However, I suspect that the context argument is flawed in all but the most limited circumstances. Even if the author understands the complex evolution of the FARC or Viet Minh, it’s pretty much a certainty that most readers don’t even know what they are, much less the point the author is hoping to make.
So the end of the first meditation finds me agreeing that often such analogies are not merely useless, they are actually counterproductive. However, since I am not finished contemplating the issue I am not willing to go so far as to agree with an outright prohibition on their use, but rather that if they are used it must be done thoughtfully and with very careful consideration. What that means will be the subject of further meditations.
“What experience and history teaches us is that people and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.”
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
“Many of America’s most important commercial crops require between 400 and 1800 hours each winter when the temperature is below 45 degrees Fahrenheit.” Earth Gauge
We give our consent every moment that we do not resist.
Denier “Challenge” aka Deathwatch Update: Day 309 … still no evidence.
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