Feminism: Your Analogy Privileges

[Content Note: Rape Culture, Homophobia, Racism, Police Metaphor]


Yes, you, the one who was linked here in the middle of an online discussion after Arguing By Analogy.

Your analogy privileges are revoked.

Not forever. Arguments by analogy can actually be super useful at helping people to understand where you're coming from, and I'm not about to take them entirely off-limits as a discussion tool. But your analogy privileges are revoked for the next month while you sit very still and think about why your analogy was less about showing another perspective in a discussion and more about trying to "win" with word games and rampant apathy about things that are life-and-death matters to many of the rest of us.

And, yes, I can do this. I have an English degree, and am authorized by the secret English Cabal to pull people over and ticket them for Analogy Abuse. Otherwise, we'd have chaos. So now let's go through why your analogy privileges have been revoked so that you can hopefully avoid being sent here in the future.

1. Analogies are not MadLibs.

Here is what I have seen all day and all week and all month and all year and all my entire fucking life:

Woman: As an X, I react with fear to Y, when Z. 
Man: Well, as a Y, I react with fear to Q, when Z. Bam!

And this? No. Just no. No no no.

Words are not interchangeable. Analogies are not about taking a complex sentence that spells out a complex social situation that has been informed by thousands of years of cultural attitudes, changing one or two words in that sentence, and then sitting back pleased at a job well done. That is not how analogies work. It's not how discussion works. It's not how interchange of ideas work.

It's how trolls shut down conversation because the Fail is so strong, you have to write several paragraphs worth just to clarify how much Fail is there. (Which is what I'm doing right now.)

When a woman says "as a woman, I react with fear to men, when I'm alone on the street walking home at night", the correct response to that sentiment is not to turn the whole thing into a MadLibs exercise ("as a NOUN, I react with fear to NOUN, when LOCATION") and then fill in the blanks with random nonsense that is not the same thing. A rebuttal of "oh, yeah, well some white men fear BLACK PEOPLE! Bam!" is as meaningful in this situation as saying that some cats fear elephants whilst on the moon.

Which is to say, it's not. Because:

2. Words are not interchangeable.

In the framing "as a woman, I fear men, when alone on the street at night", you cannot simply sub in new nouns as you please and expect the sentence to mean the same thing. If you take out "as a woman" and substitute in "as a man", you have changed the sentence completely. Because Woman and Man are not the same thing.

Women are not Men. Men are not subject to the same high incident of harassment and danger as Women. Women are less likely to be believed than Men when they report harassment and danger. Women are not possessed of the same social privilege as Men. Women comprise 90% of rape victims. At least one in six women are victims of rape or attempted rape. A disproportionate number of women face street harassment from strangers, often in ways that many men don't realize are endemic and wide-spread.

By treating the words Man and Woman as interchangeable in a statement that is about how women are demonstrably treated differently in society, you are not only attempting to impose false equivalence on the two nouns in question, you are also completely and utterly missing the fucking point. As a man, you do not understand what it's like to be Female In Public. Pretending that it must be a near-identical experience to being Male In Public inappropriately normalizes your privileged experiences as the set to which everything else presumably conforms. News flash: it doesn't.

3. Words are not interchangeable.

In the framing "as a woman, I fear men, when alone on the street at night", you cannot simply rearrange the words into some sort of gotcha statement about racist-or-homophobic white people fearing black people or fearing gay people. I know that deep down inside you really want to, because you get that homophobia and racism are steeped in ignorance and fear, and you really want to smear women who are genuinely concerned about avoiding street harassment and rape after a lifetime of being street harassed and raped as being steeped in nothing more than ignorance and fear, but here's the thing: you can't.

The number of straight white men who have been harassed on the street and explicitly and overtly made to feel genuinely unsafe by black people and/or QUILTBAG persons does not approach 99%. The number of straight white men who have been targeted for rape or attempted rape by black people and/or QUILTBAG persons does not even remotely approach the numbers of women who have been targeted for rape by men.

You know this, otherwise you wouldn't consider this to be some kind of winning Pokemon card in an argument. You know that white fear of black people and straight fear of QUILTBAG people is a load of bullshit steeped in irrational fear and layered in the hatred that is racism and homophobia. You know this because you are really really hoping that this fact will help smear women who speak up about fear of rape and harassment because, bitches be flippin', amiright?

But here is the thing: words are not interchangeable. You don't get to say "women who fear men are like white men who fear black people!" You don't get to say that because you're comparing a fact-based phenomena with a non-fact-based one and pretending that because there is one superficial similarity -- fear -- that they are therefore identical. 99% of rapists are male. 60% of rapists are white. In 2009, 69% of all individuals arrested for alleged crimes were white, while only 28% were black.

None of those statistics tell you how likely that an individual, specific person is likely to commit a crime. But if you honestly can't see the difference between "afraid of being alone with men" and "afraid of being alone with black people" after reading those statistics, then not only are your analogy privileges revoked, but also your discussion privileges entirely because you do not need to be mansplaining any more than you already have.

4. Words are not interchangeable.

Here's the other thing why your WOMEN ARE JUST LIKE RACISTS card isn't the winning hand that you thought it would be when it arrived at your house in the shiny silver foil wrapper: words are still not interchangeable.

Remember when I said that Women aren't Men and you can't swap the words around and have the sentence still make sense? And I said that specifically because Women are marginalized as a group in this country (what with all the rape and harassment and persistent denial that rape and harassment are a thing) and Men are a privileged group in this country (what with being able to continue to deny that rape and harassment are things that need addressing)? Well, similarly, you can't just switch out "men" for "black people" or "QUILTBAG persons" and expect the sentence to convey the same meaning. Because it doesn't.

Men are not disproportionately marginalized in this country, and certainly not by women as a group. Black people and QUILTBAG persons, on the other hand, are most certainly marginalized in this county, very frequently by privileged straight white men. If you turn around a statement that says "as a Marginalized Person, I fear Privileged People" (women, fearing men) and try to make it say "as a Privileged Person, I fear Marginalized People" (straight white men, fearing black people and/or QUILTBAG people), then you are completely misunderstanding everything ever.

5. Words are not interchangeable.

Here's one more thing, because fuck me but this persistent zombie analogy that will not die no matter how many times we kill it with fire irks me so much: words are not interchangeable.

When a woman says she "fears" a man who walks behind her late at night or sits too close to her on the empty public transit or engages in frightening behavior, that "fear" means she is intensely worried for her own safety. She might do something in response, but she might not do something because -- frankly -- she's been heavily socialized not to do anything and whatever she does do will earn her criticism.

But if she does do something in response to her fear, it will almost certainly be something like "get off at the wrong stop so that the stranger on the bus doesn't know where she lives". Or "duck into a brightly lit store so that the stranger following her home will give up and move on". Or "call her friend and ask them to stay on the line so that if she's attacked, someone will know to alert the police right away". Her actions will almost always inconvenience her, not the man she is afraid of.

When a straight white man says he "fears" a black person or a QUILTBAG person who happens to be out in public instead of not existing like the racists and homophobes would like hir to do? Any action taken by the straight white man in response to his fear is almost certainly going to seriously harm the black person or QUILTBAG person. He's going to call the police and have the other person detained for looking suspicious. He's going to stalk the other person in order to 'keep an eye on him'. He's going to confront the other person and murder them, simply because his "fear" made him feel justified in focusing the full blow of his privilege onto this person. We know this is going to happen, because THIS IS A THING THAT HAPPENS.

Women who fear men? Try to remove themselves from the situation as quickly, quietly, and safely as possible. Racists who fear black people? Murder them and then hide behind Stand Your Ground laws that are specifically implemented to protect straight white men but not, for example, marginalized women and black people. THAT is privilege. THAT is why words are not interchangeable. THAT is why you cannot compare a woman's fear of being raped with a racist's fear of black people. THAT is why your analogy privileges were revoked.

And THAT is why, if you are a decent human being, you will STOP FUCKING USING THIS ANALOGY.

To recap.

Repeat after me:

  • A Marginalized Group (Women) cannot be substituted with a Privileged Group (Men) without changing the meaning of the sentence. 
  •  A fact-based fear response (women fearing men because Personal Experience and Statistics) cannot be substituted with a non-fact-based fear response (straight white men fearing black people and/or QUILTBAG people because Racist/Homophobic Narratives and In Spite Of Statistics) without changing the meaning of the sentence. 
  • A Privileged Group (Men) cannot be substituted with a Marginalized Group (Black People and/or QUILTBAG People) without changing the meaning of the sentence. 
  • When the word "fear" comprises one set of behaviors in one sentence, it cannot be swapped out for a new set of behaviors in a new sentence without changing the meaning of the sentence.

And if you try to mix and match out privileged groups with marginalized groups and fact-based responses with non-fact-based responses, then you're not making a sensible analogy. You might as well just say something about cats and elephants on the moon. Because that makes as much sense and is less trolly, less likely to perpetuate racist and homophobic narratives, and less likely to smear women as JUST LIKE RACISTS AND HOMOPHOBES for having the fucking audacity to not want to be raped or street harassed by the very people most likely to rape and street harass them in our culture.

Analogies! Handle them with care, or else no one will get to use them anymore.

Thread Note: The first person to say "you can't take away my analogies because Free Speech" will have their comment deleted for derailment and chronically missing the point. Just saying. 


Foz Meadows said...

Sorry, quick thing: I think "Women are not subject to the same high incident of harassment and danger as Men. " is meant to be the other way around.

Foz Meadows said...


Akedhi said...

This. This so hard. Thank you.

Ana Mardoll said...

Thank you. Fixed.

buttercup said...

100% pure win.

AnonaMiss said...

Minor quibble: A lot of white dudes who are afraid of black dudes (because let's face it, no white dude is afraid of running into a black lady on the street at night) will inconvenience themselves to avoid conflict, e.g. by crossing the street.

I think a more accurate point of analogy breakdown is that if the thing you fear comes to pass, a white dude isn't going to have his character called into question for being a victim. Even if someone does the victim-blaming "Oh you shouldn't have been out alone at night" thing, it's not going to come up as a defense for the criminal at trial, and if it did, it'd be laughed out of court and the court of public opinion. As a white dude, you have the privilege of society recognizing that you're allowed to go wherever you damn well please.

No one's going to say, hey, you were clearly signalling that you wanted to be mugged with your wallet sticking out of your pocket - you dirty philanthropist - and therefore the mugger gets off scot free, even though everyone agrees that he took your money. You're not going to have your charitable history dug up, dissected and judged, as though having ever given away a red cent calls into question your right to keep your money to yourself.

Will Wildman said...

I'm not sure there's a lot I can say here, because 1) you are completely right, 2) there is no relevant counterpoint I can see, and 3) I can't recall personally seeing this analogy drawn anywhere (though in no way do I take that as evidence that it's not in use).

I just thought I should note that this is excellent and I'm heartened to see the secret English Cabal hard at work.

Aaron Boyden said...

I think it can actually be very useful to analyze the ways in which the analogies break down, as it can often help reveal the complexities of situations which are sometimes given oversimplified analyses. In other words, posts like this are good!

Ana Mardoll said...

It seems ubiquitous on some of the blogs I frequent, but if you have a Bile Fascination, here's the first instance of it (as far as I can see) on the classic Schrodinger's Rapist post:


(By "first instance" I mean first on that particular post. The argument itself has been around for forever.)

Maartje said...

Yup, I see the Schrödinger's Rapist/Schrödinger's Racist comparison ALL THE TIME. And it sucks.

Thanks for this post, Ana, and especially for writing it in such a way that people can link to it and be talked to directly. (Which raises the question: do you WANT people to link to this post? I can imagine you don't want everyone to send you prickly internet people...)

jill heather said...

But if I cannot immediately say anything that springs to mind without first thinking about whether it's appropriate, or hurtful, or relevant, or true, then what does free speech do for me? Free speech is, after all, only free if it is free from both forethought and consequences.

(Of course, I have freedom of EXPRESSION, not of speech in particular. So what if my way of expressing myself is punching people? What then?)

I hope it is clear that this is sarcasm.

Ana Mardoll said...

Yeah, linkage is fine. If they get too feisty, we just close the comments 'round these parts.

Ana Mardoll said...

AND you have to be guaranteed an audience, or it's not really FREEDOM. :P

Maartje said...

Ugh, not being clear:

1) If you'd rather not have us send people to this post, I'm gladly going to not send people to this post. It's not a snarky 'who do you think you are, being a smart woman on the internet' type question.

2) I do find the OTHER Schrödinger's Racist analogy interesting: If you're a black person and a white person comes up to you, you have to look at small cues to see if they will turn out to be racist towards you. Much better analogy than if you're a white person you never know if a black person is actually a monster.

jill heather said...

Yes, absolutely. My free expression -- free of consequences -- is only being properly expressed when I force people to listen to it. It's probably against the charter/constitution for you not to listen to me because you are abridging my rights. Why do you hate freedom?

Ana Mardoll said...

Well, it turns out that every time you tell a privileged person that they aren't *owed* an audience for their endless 'splaining to the wimminfolk about how feminism is basically racism against white dudes, the Liberty Bell cries. And those tears are DEE-licious, let me tell you. Better than baby donuts.

depizan said...

The sad thing is, people could probably use an internal analogy to better relate (e.g. I've never been catcalled [or whatever], but there was that time I thought I was going to get mugged... Wow, I don't want to make someone feel like that!) The fact that these people pull out the analogies to dismiss rather than relate makes it extra awful.

Will Wildman said...

I have run into an amazing number of people in recent months who are not themselves deeply terrible people but have internalised the whole 'freedom of speech above all; disagreement is censorship' notion. It's almost fun to state to them, as simply as possible, "Saying something sucks is not the same as trying to censor it" and watch the Perspective Cascade wash over them. I think I'm helping - at least one friend has seemed uncomfortable with the whole 'freedom of speech' excuse but appeared to feel it was unavoidable.

Nina said...

Ana, this is AWESOME!

Randomosity said...

My favorite response to the whine "But whyyyyyy are you stomping on my freeeeeedom of speeeeeech?" is this: I have freedom of speech, too. And that gives me the right to ask you not to lie about me.

Have you seen the often-shared Facebook bit in which a man who was mugged has his report dismissed as if he were a woman reporting a rape? That's an analogy I can get behind.

Silver Adept said...

Basic logical failures shouldn't need entire blog ousts to point out their failure. And yet I think "y'know...there are some people who could use this."

Kubricks_Rube said...

If you're a black person and a white person comes up to you, you have to look at small cues to see if they will turn out to be racist towards you.

Sorry if this is pulling things further off topic, but this seems a good place to recommend Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us by Claude Steele, a study of stereotype threat and identity.


Matt Smyczynski said...

"I have an English degree, and am authorized by the secret English Cabal to pull people over and ticket them for Analogy Abuse."

I also have an English degree, and I just want to speak up to say that this is 100% true. There's a post-graduation ritual and I can't say any more or... bad things.

Amaryllis said...

"I have an English degree, and am authorized by the secret English Cabal to pull people over and ticket them for Analogy Abuse."

Thank you for your service.

Isator Levi said...

I shall have to keep this in mind for future discussions.

Addendum: Darnit, why can't I stop "It's like raiaaaaaaiiiiinnnn" from playing over and over in my head?

Kirala said...

Thread Note: The first person to say "you can't take away my analogies because Free Speech" will have their comment deleted for derailment and chronically missing the point. Just saying. .

You can't take away my analogies because equal English Cabal rights? (English teacher is of equivalent status to writer, yes?) (English teacher is JUST LIKE writer...) ;)

Unfortunately, I can find nothing in the post with which to even slightly disagree, so I am deprived of the chance to challenge. I can't even find anything with which to jokingly disagree. I shall have to pout and reserve my English Cabal powers for getting my students to correctly identify parallel construction today.

(Hmm. Perhaps it's for the best. Published author and regular blogger has gotta be a Writer of the 3rd Degree, at least, and as an early teacher I'm a lowly 2nd Degree, max.)

More seriously, yes. Brilliant explanation of bad analogies and the abuse of the term "free speech", all in one. Well done! May the page be much linked and the comments little trolled.

Ana Mardoll said...

Speaking of, Matt, I've been asked to tell you "the raven conjugates only at night and never in future perfect". 'They' said you'd know what it means. ;)

Ana Mardoll said...

Oh, no, I'd have to place the teachers higher since you're the front line of recruiters for the next wave of cabal members. Very crucial.

Froborr d'Wiggy said...

You guys! Stop revealing English Cabal secrets! There might be ENGINEERS reading!

(Also, the azure ay-ay adores assonance and abhors alliteration.)

JarredH said...

Too late! ;)

Isabel C. said...

Are baby donuts the infant form of adult donuts, or donuts actually made of babies?

Steve Morrison said...

I thought that the first rule of the English Cabal was that there is no English Cabal?

Will Wildman said...

I don't think the English Cabal takes kindly to internally contradictory and grammatically questionable statements. You might want to check with the Cult of Syntax first.

Penprp said...

Donuts made from babies, Izzy, the Trademark Favorite Food of fat people all over the internet! Mmmm, baby donuts... Except I suppose I'd have to content myself with baby crullers, since they don't raise my blood sugar nearly as much.

jill heather said...

All you English majors have to come to us linguistics majors to discuss self-contradictory and/or ungrammatical sentences; they're way above your pay grade.

Dav said...

Minor quibble: To be fair, some men have a pretty good idea what it's like to be afraid of rape/assault for just being in public. Funnily enough, you hear the "but racism" take way more often from super-privileged dudes.

I would be happy to be the English Cabal's enforcer. No English degree, but I enjoy nailing pieces of paper to doors and admiring people's things in a vaguely threatening manner.

Ana Mardoll said...

Absolutely true. This is not meant in any way to be a blanket statement to All Men, many of whom are subject to patriarchal bullying, homophobia, transphobia, racism, and other forms of othering and institutionalized harm.

Nor is this limited to men. The privileged argument addressed here can and has been used by women, too. This is merely directed at anyone who employs this analogy.

Kirala said...

@jill heather: All you English majors have to come to us linguistics majors to discuss self-contradictory and/or ungrammatical sentences; they're way above your pay grade.
We English majors may need help to discuss self-contradictory and/or ungrammatical sentences, but I suspect we are less apt to become distracted by descriptivism and more able to act in a decisively prescriptive fashion. This is why Linguists have advanced only as far as an Association, not a Cabal.

jill heather said...

we are less apt to become distracted by descriptivism

I suspect it is not possible for a group to be more apt to be distracted by descriptivism than linguists are. Of course, each linguist has their couple-few items that they are staunchly prescriptivist about, but the association allows everyone to choose which pet peeves they like, with a few exclusions (singular they, for instance).

Steve Morrison said...

I am the penultimate prescriptivist!

TiredPhilanthropist said...

delurking to say:

@Kirala: Ah, we may be descriptivist about language in the "what is or is not English(/French/Japanese/Swahili)" sense, but we are quite capable of being suitably prescriptivist about content. Indeed, we function as the liaisons between the Cabal of English with the Cabal of German and the Cabal of Japanese, etc. to ensure that universally deplorable things (like the "analogy" that is the subject of this post) are universally condemned. We are, thus, part of a meta-Cabal, the Cabal of Language Use.
(You are on your own in your fight against split infinitives, though. The Cabal of Latin would have been aligned with you, but they are ... well, defunct.)

More seriously: Thank you, Ana. This post is great/useful/sadly necessary.

Isabel C. said...

Mmmm, glazed baby.

Ana Mardoll said...

LOL! Don't reveal my undercover identity!

jill heather said...

I am the penultimate prescriptivist!

In a world where linguists have seized all the governments, prescriptivism is a death sentence. Now, only two are left to hold fast against the relentless tides of descriptivism. Can they hide their identities from the linguistic inquisition while still convincing people that nauseous doesn't mean the same thing as nauseated, that irregardless isn't a real word, and that hopefully is not a sentence adverb?

TiredPhilanthropist said...

Wait, what is this "hopefully" thing? I've never heard about this as a prescriptive rule (though I am not up to the latest prescriptive nonsense ...). Is the contention that the sentence itself is not hopeful?

jill heather said...

Okay, well, now that we are irredeemably off topic (which is probably because Ana said it all so well in the post there wasn't much to add):

So, we have a manner adverb -- "The cat looked for more cat treats mournfully". We have a sentence (aka evaluative) adverb -- "Fortunately, I had a whole bag of treats to give her." The two can be paraphrased more or less as "in a mournful manner" and "it is fortunate that".

Now, some adverbs can be either. Mournfully could be either, though it's pretty rare as the sentence level one. Fortunately can't really be a manner adverb. Curiously and sadly, on the other hand, can easily be both. You can do something in a curious or sad manner, but it could be curious or sad that something also.

Traditionalists, aka wrong-headed people who simply do not understand the English language, claim that hopefully can only be used as a manner adverb, because you would say "it is hoped that" and not "it is hopeful that". (They do not further claim that you could use hopedly as a sentence adverb.) I think you can google for all sorts of examples, and no doubt Language Log has even more pointed discussion of this.

Note: sentence adverb really is misleading as a term, because you can use it in this evaluative sense on much smaller parts of speech. Still.

chris the cynic said...

See, I find those against hopefully sentences to be wrong headed and pedantic. On the other hand, I am very much opposed to letting violations of mood (using indicative where subjunctive is called for) slide.

When the subjunctive is not used, or misused, where it belongs it isn't necessarily something you notice at first or on a fully conscious level, but a sense of wrongness tinges all around you, which is why it is important that the subjunctive mood be used, and be used correctly. But the wrongness has infected so much of our discourse that we must all be vigilant because at this point we all fuck up.

We need to help each other stay true to proper language by not only doing our best, but also gently correcting others and graciously accepting corrections from others.

Or something like that.

Steve Morrison said...

According to some linguists, even the term "subjunctive" is incorrect! For which see the recent Language Log post "A Cautionary Vision of Things to Come" (again, wish I could get links to post!)

Steve Morrison said...

I should have said that some linguists consider "subjunctive" incorrect with reference to English grammar. Some of them also get very uptight when e.g. people use "passive voice" to mean "vague about agency". So I'm not too worried about the paradoxes inherent in being the Penultimate Prescriptivist.

jill heather said...

See, the subjunctive is something that linguists are allowed to disagree about (it is allowed to be one of your permitted prescriptivist pet peeves), unlike hopefully or the passive voice in English. If you confuse "agent != subject" with "passive" you get things all mixed up and make arguments that make no sense.

I'm allowed to tell all these secrets because no one listens to linguists anyhow. :)

chris the cynic said...

I stand by my long held position that ass is kicked by the passive voice.

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