Flawed Comparisons in Contemporary Politics
Updated: May 11, 2022
A high school in Auburn, AL started the school year in quite a memorable way. A significant portion of Auburn High School's students and parents petitioned the school principal to prohibit a teacher from displaying an LGBTQ+ Pride flag. Although this is far from the first instance of such an event, there was one part of the petition that called for extra attention:
"In closing, the signers of this petition would like for you to consider the uproar and chaos that would ensue were a teacher to hang for example a Confederate, Christian, or Heterosexual Flag in their classroom."
This comparison is not one that is necessarily new. Star Parker expressed this sentiment on Fox and Friends, stating "these two flags represent the exact same thing — that certain groups are not welcome here." This comparison might be logical — if only the context, significance, or usage for both flags were actually comparable to one another.
Comparisons can be a helpful tool for us to put two seemingly remote concepts or items and see them in a new perspective that we can better comprehend. However, one must be careful in making such a simple equation. Stating that the Confederate Flag and the LGBTQ+ Pride Flag, for example, are comparable means that these two flags share significantly many similarities, which, in in this example, is not the case.
Yes, they are both flags that are debated over, but the historical background separates these two far beyond comparison. The Confederate Flag created to represent "a people...fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race." The Pride Flag, on the other hand, represents something very different. Late creator Gilbert Baker wanted a flag that represented "something beautiful, something from us...that really fits our diversity in terms of race, gender, ages, all of those things," thus finding this "natural flag" a perfect symbol for LGBT+ equality. Yes, both flags have their fair share of supporters and critics, but one flag advocated and continues to advocate against equal rights; the latter demands equality for all regardless of characteristics such as gender identity or sexuality.
There can be many more examples of such games of spot-the-difference. More recently, the white nationalist movement has been compared to the Black Lives Matter movement. Even Donald Trump infamously blamed "both sides," implying that the alt-right, a term coined by Richard Spencer, and what he calls the "alt-left" are equally immoral.
No movement is even remotely perfect, and Black Lives Matter and Antifa are no exceptions. Yes, we should call out wrongdoings regardless of who commits them, and yes, we need to acknowledge that there are radicals in almost every, if not all, movements. However, putting the "alt-left," as Trump puts it, on the same level as the alt-right is a dangerous move to make. Equalizing both sides, especially in such a sensitive time, demonizes one side while failing to recognize the gravity of the other.
Seeing the nation follow this trend of faulty comparisons was disheartening, and seeing my Alma Mater follow this trend in their petition was further evidence that oversimplification lies beyond mere semantics — it can potentially change connotations. A case study conducted by Dedre Gentner shows that "analogies can then serve as mental models to support reasoning in new domains." Because such models can lead people to create new conclusions and thus create new beliefs and new actions consistent to those beliefs, we must be careful before making comparisons. We must ask ourselves challenging questions: what are the implications of these comparisons? What are the connotations? What conclusions might be inducted as a result?
Models can be incredibly helpful tools for people to grasp complex concepts. Maps and globes allow people to tangibly study geography, and simple linear supply and demand models help us grasp basic microeconomics in a perfectly competitive market. However, we must be wary that models must have some resemblance to what they represent and must be studied with knowledge that they are simplistic representations, thus sacrificing accuracy. Similarly, we as a society must be cautious before considering equivalencies, especially ones as strong as the ones that have been prevalent in the media today. Such comparisons carry heavy implications that can affect our beliefs, our comprehension of groups and their respective motives, and ultimately, our decisions.