The perception and appreciation of analogy — of discerning the common characteristics that make two superficially dissimilar situations or events essentially similar, or the divergent characteristics that make two superficially similar situations or events essentially dissimilar — is one of the fundamental skills of human reasoning that allows us to navigate complexity, to learn from history, to avoid the mistakes of the past, and to progress despite those mistakes. It has been my observation that in our modern approach to education we no longer emphasize the teaching or the learning of those skills — and that, therefore, those skills have atrophied in Western culture — or at least in American culture — to the point that we are in danger of losing their benefit entirely.
The lack of those skills shows itself in intellectual discourse — including in discussions of politics and culture — in two ways: in the inability to see past surface dichotomies to underlying parallels; and in the insistence that shallow resemblance implies fundamental correspondence.
Accusations of hypocrisy or of maintaining double standards — or defenses of the same — often have their roots in this inability to form or evaluate valid analogies. One recent example was presented in a letter to The Boston Globe, a critique of an OpEd piece by Cathy Young in which she took Eason Jordan (the head of CNN news who resigned after his accusation that American troops in Iraq purposely targeted journalists exploded into scandal) to task for his behavior. The letter accused her of upholding a double standard for not criticizing a particular right-wing journalist as vehemently; I wrote to explain why that accusation — based on an inapt analogy — was inappropriate. My response was not published.
17 February 2005
Letter writer Peter Caswell (17 Feb) takes Cathy Young to task for failing to condemn Ann Coulter’s frothing on the subject of troops targeting journalists, contending that a failure to do so in her commentary on former CNN News chief Eason Jordan’s missteps constitutes a double-standard.
But, even assuming Cathy Young had heard of Ms. Coulter’s remarks before writing her commentary, it is unremarkable that she failed to mention them for the simple reason that what Ann Coulter says is entirely irrelevant to the discussion of Eason Jordan’s behavior.
Ann Coulter is a polemicist who offered, in a domestic forum dedicated to commentary, an opinion on how she thinks troops should behave. She is also well-known as a media-savvy blowhard who revels in bombast and controversy. Further, what Ann Coulter says and believes affects only her own work.
Eason Jordan was an American journalist at an international policy conference, and what he offered was offered as news — his assessment of how troops had actually and factually behaved on the ground in Iraq. And, apparently, he did so without evidence — or, at least, without evidence sufficient to make his assessment publishable: he used the trust of his position rather than the fruits of reporting to lend credibility to an incredible assertion. That the assertion itself seemed designed to undermine American moral authority and policy before an audience of foreign dignitaries only compounded the original sin.
Further Jordan was not merely an individual journalist: he ran the news operation at one of the world’s major networks. He ultimately controlled not only the editing of stories that went on the air but the hiring and firing of reporters, the rewards and reprimands they would receive, and the choice of stories they would pursue. What Eason Jordan said and believed had the potential to influence not only his own work but all news reporting at CNN.
The fact that Cathy Young did not condemn Ann Coulter for her odious pronouncement doesn’t reflect a double-standard. It merely reflects the fact that Ann Coulter’s bias is well-known and largely irrelevant to objective journalism. Eason Jordan’s was not.
© Copyright 2005, Augustus P. Lowell