In Defense Of Double Standards, Sometimes

Trent Lott resigned; Harry Reid should resign.

Logicians call the above remark, from Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), an argument from false or weak analogy. In Washington, it happens to be a reflexive, almost instinctive identity protection mechanism.

In this case, it is the effort to analogize the circumstances that led to Trent Lott's resignation as majority leader in 2002 with the remarks made by majority leader Harry Reid in 2008 (and published in 2010). As with most weak analogies, "proof" is induced from a reading of superficial similarities: both men said something about race, both men are majority leaders. Once the analogy is employed, the events are linked, and disparate treatment could only suggest nefarious motives: media bias, usually, or double standards, or something unfair.
The argument is based not only on illogic but on how easy it is to exploit the tendency among human beings to seek patterns. A priori -- that is, before we get to the facts of the matter -- analogies, even when valid, don't provide proof of anything. Weak analogies, in particular, tend to eclipse -- or are intended to eclipse -- a rational assessment of the facts, and they obscure meaningful differences in time, place and motive.

To give but two examples here unrelated to motive or content: the relationship between President Bush and Trent Lott was qualitiatively different than the relationship between Harry Reid and President Obama.  The degree to which Republicans defended Lott was different than the degree to which Democrats are defending Reid. Also, Democrats are different from Republicans. Their parties have different relationships to race relations; both complex, but different.

A secondary fallacy, and one that is definitely in play vis-a-vis Lott and Reid, is that given the similarities (but ignoring the differences), the two incidents should be treated the same way, usually by the media, or seen the way, usually by voters. Let us put aside the false analogy for a moment. It does not follow that similar incidents should be treated similarly, particularly if the magnitude of the differences are more significant than the similarities. Double standards are often defensible. The best question to ask is whether one would apply the same standard to oneself in a nearly identical (not just similar) situation. And Democrats and Republicans are usually guilty of failing to adhere to this one rule for double standard treatment.

But it is certainly true that the Republican Party's recent history on race almost requires any reasonable observer to treat a racially insensitive comment by a Republican differently from a racially insensitive comment by a Democrat. And that's before we even judge the content  and context of said comments, which, in the case of Reid and Lott, were quite different.

That is, the right answer to the assertion: "What would have happened if a Republican said the same time today? He would have been treated differently?" is to say, "Well, probably, yes, and that in and of itself isn't unfair. It's up to you to tell me why Republicans and Democrats ought not to be treated differently, when they are different parties with different histories and different trajectories on racial questions." To reach back at this point and pull out Trent Lott gets us into the false analogy rathole.

It's hard to find the right balance. And analogies aren't always used perniciously. They can be instructive metaphors. But in politics today, they are often used illogically and reflexively, and they are often effective.

When you see a rhetorician or a politician or even a journalist employ an analogy to complain about the level of scrutiny or conduct or treatment, recognize, immediately, that analogies are limited in their power, and look for signs of a weak one: over-the-top comparisons, comparisons across time periods, and particularly the prior probabilities of the similarities and dissimilarities being true and the relative strength that you can accord to those similarities and differences. (For the slightly more scientifically inclined, I suppose that our susceptibility to false analogy is based on our difficulty to master Bayesian probabilities. Maybe?)

As Adam Cohen once put it, "The power of an analogy is that it can persuade people to transfer the feeling of certainty they have about one subject to another subject about which they may not have formed an opinion."

Maybe Harry Reid's comments are a resignable offense. Maybe they're beyond the pale. (I tend to think not: Reid was referring to his excitement about a black presidential candidate; Lott was referring to his warm memories about a segregationist's agenda). But a responsible argument for such a consequence can only begin with an analogy -- and not end with a false one.