Paul Krugman writes in today's New York Times about corporate America's use of analogies to Jim Crow, and other historical periods of injustice and oppression:
For those who don’t recall, A.I.G. is a giant insurance company that played a crucial role in creating the global economic crisis, exploiting loopholes in financial regulation to sell vast numbers of debt guarantees that it had no way to honor. Five years ago, U.S. authorities, fearing that A.I.G.’s collapse might destabilize the whole financial system, stepped in with a huge bailout. But even the policy makers felt ill used — for example, Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, later testified that no other episode in the crisis made him so angry.
And it got worse. For a time, A.I.G. was essentially a ward of the federal government, which owned the bulk of its stock, yet it continued paying large executive bonuses. There was, understandably, much public furor.
So here’s what Mr. Benmosche did in an interview with The Wall Street Journal: He compared the uproar over bonuses to lynchings in the Deep South — the real kind, involving murder — and declared that the bonus backlash was “just as bad and just as wrong.”
The comparison, is needless to say, outrageous. But there are two things to point out about it. First, even conservatives today have integrated the "radical" stories from yesterday, into their most basic moral worldview. It was the conservatives, of course, who supported lynchings as an appropriate response to black resistance to Jim Crow. And yet today, those same conservatives see such violence for the horror that it is. This should give us hope that we can achieve the same change, for even the conservatives of today.
The second thing to note, however, is that the use of metaphor to historical oppression is a common rhetorical tactic to elevate concern for one's chosen cause. However, it only works if the comparison is apt. The AIG CEO's metaphor above, for example, is offensive precisely because it is preposterous. Corporate executives are not going through the same oppression as non-whites murdered under Jim Crow. They are the elite of society, and endlessly pampered by government and their community. A little public criticism, for excessive indulgence at taxpayer expense, is surely fair game.
Where comparisons do seem apt -- for example, between the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the Nazi Holocaust -- the offense largely disappears. (Indeed, critics of such a comparison might be deemed racist, for failing to recognize that the murder of Africans is equivalent to the murder of Jews.)
And if a comparison is inapt because the compared oppression is less severe, then the analogy is also discordant -- but for a totally different reason. Consider, for example, the following statement.
"The Rwandan genocide was horrendous. Hundreds of thousands, including young children, were hacked to death with machetes simply because of their ethnicity. It's like that time I didn't get a job promotion because I'm Asian!"
The comparison is now preposterous for a very different reason -- not because of an attempt to leverage another oppressed group's historical experience, but because it seems to be diminishing, intentionally or otherwise, the issue at hand.
The moral? Metaphors are extremely important. And much of the angry response to use of metaphors, in the animal rights movement, is due to prevailing speciesism in our society, and even among animal rights activists. But we should tread carefully, in our use of such metaphors -- not only because we may cause offense to others, but because we may (ironically) end up diminishing our own cause.