VIEW: Analogical warfare —Saleem H Ali
The power of analogy has even fused secular ideologies such as Fascism with contemporary theological movements to coin phrases like ‘Islamo-fascism’. Former US congressman Newt Gingrich recently compared President Bush to Abraham Lincoln and called for congress to ‘pass an act that recognises that we are entering World War III’
In his address to the nation on September 11, 2006, President George W Bush compared himself to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman in their face-off with a determined enemy. America’s metaphoric and substantive ‘war on terror’ finds much of its impetus from comparisons with earlier conflicts. The agonising question is often posed to pacifists: how would you contain a menace like Hitler without warfare? The next step in the argument is that Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein 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’. Former US congressman Newt Gingrich recently compared President Bush to Abraham Lincoln and called for congress to “pass an act that recognises that we are entering World War III.” The 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 acerbic analogies going back in Islamic history. President Bush’s calling the current conflict a ‘crusade’ was quickly exploited by Islamists to show how the comparison might be taken literally as a clash between Christiandom and Islam. Now Pope Benedict has contributed to this analogical warfare with his own misplaced comparisons to 14th century emperors that are fuelling further fury.
The anti-war movement is similarly capitalising 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 itself neutralise the effect?
Unfortunately, the danger of analogical reasoning occurs when we go beyond the explanatory power of this tool and start using it for tactical and strategic purposes. As a conflict resolution professional, one of my goals in any mediation is to ensure that none of the parties misuse analogies in their communication strategy. 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 furore when the educational testing service dropped analogical reasoning from its much-feared scholastic aptitude tests (SAT). The purpose of the analogical section had been to help students differentiate between true and false analogies and help in logical argument formation. However, last year, it was decided by the College Board that current college curricula are not so ‘connected’ with this need. 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!”
Getting back to current events, if we were to deconstruct another favoured analogy and perhaps see how it might be framed more constructively, let us consider the comparison of terrorism to cancer. We often hear of terrorism being referred to as a disease that spreads malignantly like an aggressive tumour. Indeed, several medical journals have published editorials about this remarkably striking analogy. However, as with other ailments there are two paths to treatment: symptomatic and systemic. Both may be important but the latter is probably more effective in the long-term. Targeted chemotherapy against cancerous cells might be comparable to precision bombing against an enemy but to cure cancer clusters in communities the underlying epidemiological causes must be identified. We cannot be sanguine about the power of our therapies if the malady is likely to repeat itself.
Notice that the analogy here deliberately avoids historical detail or more specific causal mechanisms. Instead a structural comparison is presented to provide clarity rather than conflating incongruent issues. 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.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate professor of environmental planning and conflict resolution at the University of Vermont. He can be reached at email@example.com