Of Ants and Whales

By Cyberquill 04/16/20123 Comments

No analogy is perfect. On some level, all comparisons are invalid.

In fact, it is precisely the dis-similarities that make a comparison a comparison as opposed to the thing itself. Every situation, every circumstance, and every phenomenon resembles only itself in all aspects, yet comparing a thing to itself holds no explanatory value—their explanatory value, of course, being the reason for resorting to analogies and comparisons in the first place.

Is it valid to compare an ant to a whale or a pickpocket to a serial killer?

Depends on the point you’re trying to make.

Ants compare to whales just fine in that both have eyes in their heads and both have been the subject of intense scientific study. They certainly do not compare in size (although relative to the size of, say, our galaxy, they sort of do) or habitat (except that both reside on planet Earth).

And while a pickpocket and a serial killer hardly compare in terms of the heinousness of their acts (unless the former keeps filching people’s life-saving medicine money), they do compare in the sense that both are criminals with a constitutional right to a fair trial by a jury of their peers.

So before we flip our lids because somebody compared a small-time crook to a mass murderer, we should at least extend the comparer the courtesy of attempting to comprehend exactly what aspect of the two he was comparing and assess whether the comparison might be a valid one with respect to that very aspect, not simply assume he meant to say that pick-pocketing was on par with killing people or that any minor-league purse snatcher ought to be executed like Ted Bundy.

In his poem “Very Like a Whale,” Ogden Nash whales on the practice of drawing comparisons, as he takes tongue-and-cheek umbrage at Lord Byron’s analogizing an Assyrian attack on the Hebrews to a wolf coming down on a fold of sheep:

Authors of all races, be they Greeks, Romans, Teutons or Celts,

Can’t seem just to say that anything is the thing it is but have to go out of their way to say that it is like something else.


No, no, Lord Byron, before I’ll believe that this Assyrian was actually like a wolf I must have some kind of proof;

Did he run on all fours and did he have a hairy tail and a big red mouth and big white teeth and did he say Woof woof woof?

Frankly I think it very unlikely, and all you were entitled to say, at the very most,

Was that the Assyrian cohorts came down like a lot of Assyrian cohorts about to destroy the Hebrew host.

But that wasn’t fancy enough for Lord Byron, oh dear me no, he had to invent a lot of figures of speech and then interpolate them.

With the result that whenever you mention Old Testament soldiers to people they say Oh yes, they’re the ones that a lot of wolves dressed up in gold and purple ate them.


Of course, to say that those Assyrian cohorts came down on the Hebrews like a bunch of Assyrian cohorts coming down on a bunch of Hebrews would have shed no informative light on the nature of this attack for those unfamiliar with the event; therefore, the comparison with wolves coming down on a fold of sheep was called into service. But since, by definition, the thing invoked to serve as a comparison features but a limited number of characteristics—perhaps only one—also found in the thing to be elucidated via such rhetorical juxtaposition, in the absence of having those characteristics spelled out specifically, a modicum of discernment is required on the part of the listener to figure out what exactly is being compared, which is usually but a narrow slice of the whole caboodle: just because the Assyrians came charging down the hill “like wolves” doesn’t necessarily mean they were running on all fours saying “Woof, woof, woof.” Most likely, a different lupine characteristic was meant.

Likewise, even though a person or organization may not be in the process of orchestrating a genocide and a world war doesn’t mean they aren’t “like the Nazis” in that they might, for instance, be striving to silence their opposition and using Nazi propaganda tactics to disseminate their message.

To intentionally and demonstratively misunderstand the nature of a comparison offered by a disliked party so as to lambaste that party for having made a preposterous comparison is an extremely popular propaganda tactic in its own right, as is the practice of deliberately drawing inflammatory comparisons where less provocative ones would have sufficed, in full anticipation of misconstruction by one’s detractors, thus providing an opportunity to assail those detractors for reckless inattention to nuance in order to score cheap points with their adherents.

Our brains work by association to a fairly alarming degree, and thus one of the paramount goals of propaganda is to establish mental associations between unrelated or scarcely related phenomena. In what way might the half-naked lady be related to the Ferrari in the car commercial, and if in no obvious way at all, why might she be sprawling on the hood? She’s there, of course, to establish an association. In essence, that’s the same technique employed in old Third Reich propaganda footage of rats overdubbed with disparaging comments about disfavored ethnicities; or in more recent U.S. news footage of the burning twin towers overdubbed with unrelated blather about Iraq’s supposed WMDs, an ingenious combination of ad copy and visuals that appeared to have resulted in a stunningly large percentage of the U.S. population believing that Saddam Hussein had been behind 9/11, without any U.S. official ever having articulated such connection.

Therefore, mentioning two people or entities in the same breath, even if only for the purpose of comparing one isolated aspect between the two, invariably sends the subliminal message that they are fundamentally related, even though the comparison’s wording may draw no such full-scale equivalency. Yet a potentially lingering association between two only tenuously related things has now been established.

Some years ago, PETA released an ad featuring a picture of a chained animal leg next to a picture of the chained leg of a black person, the obvious message having been that slavery was slavery and suffering was suffering, irrespective of the group or species affected. Predictably, many African-Americans became outraged at PETA for “comparing black people to animals.” Of course, black people are the ones with a recent history of having been treated like animals, so the comparison was accurate. Moreover, animals compare to humans (black, white, or otherwise) in myriad ways, the capacity to experience pain being but one. Just because animals don’t compare to people in every respect doesn’t mean they don’t compare to people in any respect. (Ironically, Abraham Lincoln once made a similar comment about blacks relative to whites, namely that the two groups didn’t compare wholesale but did compare in some respects, such as the right to freedom and to enjoy the fruits of their labors—still a frightfully backwoods attitude to espouse by modern standards, but a highly advanced and progressive one at the time. And a pretty clever one at that.)

Obviously, PETA’s aim wasn’t to reduce black people to animals, but rather to elevate animals into the human realm, at least when it came to experiencing agony. In this spirit—and speaking of whales—PETA recently filed a law suit against SeaWorld for violating the 13th Amendment rights (ban of slavery and involuntary servitude) of killer whales by forcing the captured cetaceans to entertain the crowds. So PETA went one step further, not only comparing black people to animals but to killer animals, which, once again, was bound to draw a heap of flak from African-American activists worried about the wrong mental associations being established by said comparison, valid as it may be when properly understood.

Trouble is, of course, one can’t really rely on anything to be properly understood, especially when emotionally charged subject matters are called upon for the purpose of making a point, a practice inherently liable to sowing confusion as to the comparer’s true motives and prompting charges of gratuitous provocation.

In short, compare with caution.

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