In English we have an expression I like – comparisons are odious. It came to mind after a recent appearance in the Spanish parliament Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, the Minister of Justice in the ruling PP government. Gallardon told Joan Saura, a senator from the Catalan Green party ICV, that he should be worried about being on the same side as the leader of France’s National Front, Marine Le Pen. This type of argument, which attempts to invoke guilt by association, is based on fallacious reasoning. The problem with guilt by association is that it fails to show what is wrong with the policy it purports to criticise. Just because some bad people like, support or do not it make it wrong. The Nazis were keen on ecology and anti-smoking. Are these policies wrong because a repulsive ideology happened to support them? If something is wrong, you need to demonstrate why it is wrong, rather than resorting to this kind of cheap shot. To get my own cheap shot in, I would also like to say that vile Rumanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu was a fanatical anti-abortionist. I hope you will be able to sleep comfortably at night Mr. Gallardon.
If there isn’t one already there ought to be one listing such fallacies. It would I guess be dominated by Nazi references. This happened recently with billionaire Tom Perkins. The 82-year-old Perkins originally wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal of the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to San Francisco’s war on the rich. In a second letter he went on to compare the ‘Occupy’ movement to German fascism before the Nazis rose to power. What was he hoping to achieve? There is nothing wrong with criticising the Occupy Movement. He could have pointed to all the wealth that high-tech companies have brought to California, or how invoking envy can make for bad policies.
My other example of dodgy comparisons is that of people in the public eye comparing themselves to Nelson Mandela. In 2004 the Guardian featured this quote by Bill Clinton:
“[Mandela] told me he forgave his oppressors because if he didn’t they would have destroyed him,” Mr Clinton said. “He said: ‘You know, they already took everything. They took the best years of my life; I didn’t get to see my children grow up. They destroyed my marriage. They abused me physically and mentally. They could take everything except my mind and heart. Those things I would have to give away and I decided not to give them away.’ And then he said ‘Neither should you’.”
Mandela fought a brutal regime and was in prison for nearly a quarter of his life. Clinton got into trouble because he spunked on a young intern’s dress. He did not spend a quarter of his life incarcerated, but he was reprimanded by congress.
And in an interview with Barbara Walters Martha Stewart declared: “Many good people have gone to prison. Look at Nelson Mandela.” As Steve Lowe and Alan Macarthur pointed out in Is it Just Me or is Everything Shit?, their situations were indeed comparable:
Stewart’s would indeed have been identical to Mandela’s – if only Mandela had owned a business empire worth 800 million and had been jailed for lying to investigators regarding a suspicious stock sale.
So this is the end of my brief guide to ridiculous comparisons, nest time you hear a politician or celebrity making a comparison I hope you will listen carefully.