The Limits of Analogies

By Sherry F. Colb

In my Verdict column for this week, I discuss a European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) decision upholding a German court's injunction against the publication by PETA (the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) - Deutschland (PETA-D) of a series of posters that compare the animal cruelty and slaughter of the animal-based food industry to the Holocaust.  In my column, I take up three questions:  (1) Was the PETA campaign strategically wise?, (2) Does comparing nonhuman animal victims to human victims  necessarily insult or degrade the status of the humans?, and (3) Might the offense that people take reflect something less noble than an identification with human victims of the Holocaust?

In this post, I want to offer the hypothesis that comparing victims of distinct harms disserves the victims of both harms.  To analyze this hypothesis, let us consider an analogy that members of the pro-life movement sometimes draw, between the Holocaust and abortion.

From the perspective of people who support the right to abortion, the analogy is troubling for various reasons.  First, it seems to ignore the very distinct circumstances in which a person decides to carry out the extermination of disfavored groups, on one hand, and the termination of a pregnancy, on the other.  A hatred of Jews, gay people, Roma, and others motivated the execution of the Final Solution.  People seeking an abortion, by contrast, typically feel ill-equipped to gestate and then care for their children and rarely if ever act out of hatred.  Second, the analogy appears to disregard the fact that the overwhelming majority of abortions occur before the human fetus has acquired the capacity to have subjective experiences, i.e., before sentience.  Victims of the Holocaust, by contrast, were all too capable of experiencing the terror and suffering that they endured under the Third Reich.  One could identify more distinctions, but for brevity's sake, these two should suffice.

The analogy between abortion and the Holocaust also likely fails, upon reflection, for members of the pro-life movement as well.  First, from their perspective, the numbers do not compare -- the Holocaust was a temporally bounded event with a finite (though tremendous) number of victims, while the practice of abortion continues, with the numbers accordingly climbing steadily higher with each passing day.  To compare the two therefore fails to acknowledge the perceived urgency of addressing an ongoing harm by comparison to the importance of acknowledging an historical harm.  Second, people who mourn for the victims of the Holocaust do not, in general, have to argue that they grieve for a true catastrophe -- that the Holocaust  represented a horrifying injustice is not a contested proposition in most circles.  To protest the injustice of embryos and fetuses being killed in abortions, however, does take a controversial position on a contested moral question, and this fact undoubtedly adds to the distress of those opposed to abortion.  Stated differently, having one's strongly-held moral commitments dismissed and derided by many people adds a whole other layer of frustration on top of one's experience fighting for a cause.  If you doubt this, just consider the feelings of women who once railed against the injustice of denying women suffrage, only to encounter crude jokes that treated their struggle with derision.

Analogies to the Holocaust (and to other uncontroversially outrageous injustices) might thus genuinely and rightly cause distress to both speaker and audience, if each considers the many ways in which the analogized injustices truly differ.  It should not be necessary, moreover, for people fighting for a cause to say "this is just like the Holocaust" (or "this is just like slavery" or "this is just like rape").  We must instead become willing and better able to listen to one another's perspectives and allow that what disturbs any of us is worthy of consideration and a full hearing, no matter how different it might be from what we can all agree is disturbing.

Contested claims about injustice are, almost by definition, likely to encounter angry and defensive resistance, and we have seen this in responses to just about every social justice movement, including movements for civil rights, women's rights, gay rights (all of which are, I hasten to add, distinct from one another in many important ways).  Furthermore, the angry resistance is itself likely to trigger anger and anguish on the part of those who hope to raise consciousness about an issue to which most people have given little thought.  The end result is that everyone feels alienated and unconvinced, because no one is truly listening to anyone else.

All of this counsels in favor of people -- whether or not they are moral entrepreneurs -- making sure to take out time to gather regularly with those who share their values and who understand injustice in similar ways, so that everyone has the opportunity to gather strength and support from "fellow travelers."  Then, when members of distinct moral communities come to address one another, each will be equipped with the emotional safety and security that come from having a community that takes their respective worldviews seriously.  Only then can we all hope to engage in a productive dialogue, one that  no longer relies on analogies that serve not only to offend those with conventional commitments but also to obscure the true nature of a new movement for social justice.