On Bad Analogies

There was an article in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks back about original novel of Bambi, by Felix Salten. The gist of the article was regarding how different the book was from the film, and in particular how the book had a strong theme of the experience of minority groups (Salten was an Austrian Jew), with the hunters and predators being analogous for how majority populations treat the underprivileged. This, the article said with clear indignation, was watered down and ignored first by the original English translation and then by by the Disney film, thereby robbing audiences of the more important, mature aspects of the story. I don’t have the article in front of me, but the impression I got was that the author felt that this aspect in particular elevated the story beyond the norm.

(The article was also oddly hostile to Whittaker Chambers, the original translator, reiterating that he was then on the verge of becoming a Communist agent, but strangely failing to mention his later repudiation of the party. The idea being that the pro-dictatorial Chambers deliberately watered down the anti-oppression aspects of the story. I suppose that’s entirely possible, but it’s odd to bring Chambers up in this context without mentioning his subsequent history: a little like describing C.S. Lewis as an atheistic scholar and leaving it at that).

Personally, I haven’t read the novel, so I don’t know how accurate this assessment is. However, taking it on hypothesis, I’d have to say that altering that aspect of the story is an example of Uncle Walt’s good judgment (and possibly Mr. Chambers’s as well).

See, predator and prey animals are a really bad analogy for minority – majority dynamics, because predators need to prey on other animals to survive. There is no choice in the matter and consequently no moral dimension: the predators couldn’t do otherwise if they wanted to. It is simply the way of nature.

If we were to apply this to, say, the dynamic of the minority and majority populations, it would imply that either that majorities must oppress minorities in order to survive or that it is simply the natural state of being: that different populations are akin to different species and hence the interests of one cannot be the interests of the other…which is not only a horrible idea, but if anything implies that there is nothing morally wrong with the situation, only evolutionarily inconvenient. That is, it isn’t wrong, but harmful to our side.

(Predators can work, however, as an analogy of the demonic, e.g. Sharptooth in The Land Before Time works as an image of the Devil)

This is why writers need to be careful about the analogies they use: a poorly chosen one can, when examined, imply the exact opposite of what you intended.

You see this happening a lot when people try to use robots as an allegory of slavery or the like. The problem is that the crux of the moral issue at hand is that a man isn’t merely a tool or inanimate object to be used. That is, that he isn’t a machine or a brute animal, not something fundamentally other and less than another man. He may be subordinate to another man, but subordinate as a man, not as a thing.

But when you try to use a robot to illustrate that, the question comes up “wait, just what is the issue here? What message are you trying to convey? That you shouldn’t treat people as things? But the machines are just things, by definition. So, are you saying you shouldn’t treat things as things?” The result is that the moral issue at hand is as obscured as it ever was, if not more so.

This, by the way, was the point of that great final line in Terminator 2: “I know now why you cry. But it’s something I can never do.” The point the T-800 was trying to make to John Connor was, “You may think of me as a person, but I’m not. You can’t prioritize me over actual people.”

Ironically enough, this sentiment – affirming that the robot is not a person and should not receive the same consideration even though we’re personally attached to it – drives home the message of the value of human life far more strongly and more effectively than cheaply trying to claim that the Terminator was ‘really’ human. It emphatically distinguishes between what is human and has intrinsic value as such and what does not and follows that logic through (which is a major theme throughout the story).

Another example of a good analogy is in the film version Bambi, where Walt Disney uses Man, not as an image of social oppression or bigotry, but of war and other such vast, uncontrollable calamities: something primal, unknowable, which individuals have no power to oppose. Because Man really does stand to the woodland creatures, not as a neighbor with unfair advantages that he makes cruel use of, but as something separate, alien, and unconquerable, and his entering the forest to hunt and set fires is something impersonal and utterly beyond the ability of Bambi or the animals to understand or resist: all they can do is try to survive it.

All analogies are imperfect, but you have to be careful that any analogy you use actually supports, rather than contradicts, the point you’re trying to make.

5 thoughts on “On Bad Analogies

  1. Great little essay.
    Having not watched Bambi in almost 30 years, I have no skin in the game as far as the fidelity of the translation, nor do I care to try and read the book. But your points still stand perfectly well, and are well put, in spite of my antipathy for the base material.

    Hm. How you describe the possible analogy between hunter/hunted in the animated bersion reminds me of how virtually all cultures used to think of faeries. Something so alien and incomprehensible and beyond our control, and yet of the same world in many ways. Still mortal, if not in our power to beat back or dominate.

    I think the analogy between predators and the devil is more tenuous (but more mystical and poetic if done right.) After all, a hunter or a predator does not want to kill all of the prey–only enough to eat and feed a family. A hunter or a predator is still mortal. A hunter or predator feels (or should feel) no antipathy toward its prey, though hunger and anticipation is natural. The devil hates all mortals, and would kill and damn us all if Christ did not prevent him.

    But then, Scriptures and many saints explicitly describe the devil as like a predator, so what do I know?

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    • Re. the devil as predator, I have thought at times of those humans who we call predators because they prey on their fellow man. They do seem to be the most devilish humans – not merely in the sense of being evil, but that they typically need to capture and break others’ minds or souls just so they can reliably make their victims believe lies. Hence “they are of their father the devil, who is a liar and a murderer.” It is predation, hunting and devouring: but it’s not a hunger for nourishment, which can be sated, but rather devouring others out of an even deeper and more ravening emptiness inside.

      It just now occurs to me that I know evil a lot better than I’d like.

      As for faeries, a much more pleasant topic I’ve been musing on a lot, I actually think they’re not nearly as alien as they seem. They look like something halfway between man and angel. They’re really more like halfway between layman and priest. But that’s another story for another time (which is to say, setting up my own blog is on my kanban backlog and I am presently trying to figure out in which order I should present the ideas for the post with which I came up last week about this very point).

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  2. Reminds me of that bit in “Maus, Vol. II” where it briefly becomes relevant that the real-life Władik Spiegelman had a pet cat to which he was deeply devoted. “Can I mention this, or does it totally louse up my metaphor?”

    Also, wasn’t the author of “Bambi” named Felix *Salten*? (Well, Siegmund Salzmann really, but his pen name… you know what I mean. Anyway, I don’t know where you or the WSJ author got “Stenton” from.)

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    • You’re correct; it is Salten. Must’ve had a brain error. It’s been corrected (and I frantically check the book I wrote on the subject to make sure I didn’t screw it up there too. Fortunately, I didn’t).

      On the subject of ‘Maus’, I actually think cats can be an exception to the above issue. That’s simply because cats are domestic animals and don’t technically ‘need’ to hunt mice, not to mention that they often don’t eat the things they kill.

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      • I don’t know so much. If you take that line, it seems to me that you run into two problems. In the first place, the whole reason cats were domesticated in the first place was so they could catch mice – which is probably why they, along with dogs and the horse clan, still have an air of being true partners of man, not shared by those animals (e.g., hamsters, budgies, goldfish) that we’ve only ever kept for our own amusement. So to use them as a symbol of the evil foe would be to say, in effect, that it’s evil to retain one’s proper nature once progress appears to have rendered it irrelevant – which I’m sure certain factions in our society would be delighted to affirm, but which is maybe not the sort of thing that you and I would care to be caught saying.

        More immediately, the characterization you give of cats really applies, even now, only to *house* cats; stray cats *don’t* generally have other sources of food besides hunting (well, except scavenging, but every predator has that option), and don’t typically leave their kills uneaten. What your argument would be saying, therefore, is that it’s being kept in a house that makes a cat a villain – which implies that the little girl snuggling her pet kitten is the real monster here. Again, not quite the significacio one wants for one’s cute little talking-mouse story.

        So, no, I don’t think the pfeffil are any more validly propaganda-ready than the rest of the Thousand. By all means make them the antagonists, if you want your story to be about the kinds of things they antagonize, but generic moral censure is surely as out of place for them as it is for wolves or tyrannosaurs.

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