Analogy 101

A quick note on understanding an analogy.

Confused by Daniela Vladimirova
Analogies… confusing or enlightening?
Photo courtesy Daniela Vladimirova

Trigger warning: sexual abuse

Yesterday, I wrote a piece on conflicts of interest, vested interests, and institutional corruption. In it, I wrote:

Having Facebook, Google, and Microsoft sponsor a conference on ‘protecting the open internet and digital rights of users’ is like having McDonald’s, Coca Cola, and Lucky Strike sponsor a conference on healthy living.

I then went on to say:

What’s worse is that by giving Google and Facebook a platform to associate as sponsors with non-profits and people working for social change lends them an entirely undeserved legitimacy and moral grounding when it comes to speaking on this subject. You might as well have a conference on child abuse sponsored by the Vatican.

If this is not the must egregious example of what Lawrence Lessig would call institutional corruption, I don’t know what is.

Several people — some of whom might have sincerely misunderstood it — decided to zero in on the second analogy. I want to address the issue here as other people reading their tweets out of context may be confused and because what was stated is so blatantly untrue that I cannot let it pass.

Analogy, defined

An analogy, according Merriam Webster, is ‘resemblance in some particulars between things otherwise unlike’. So the key to understanding an analogy is to understand which of these particulars is being compared and in which ways the things are otherwise unlike.

Given that there is a wilful attempt on the part of some people to misrepresent what I wrote, I will explain the analogy in detail below.

The analogy, dissected

By comparing a conference on ‘protecting the open internet and digital rights of users’ being sponsored by the very companies that threaten the open internet and digital rights of users to a conference on child abuse being hosted by the Vatican, what I am saying is that an event aimed at solving a certain problem should not be sponsored by the very agents who are perpetuating the said problem.

That’s it. And that is all there is to the analogy.

It is, thus, very clear which particulars are being compared and, as importantly, how the two things are otherwise unlike.

For the sake of completeness, let me also spell out what the analogy does not do: it does not compare the people working at the sponsors of the conference to sexual predators. The only way to glean that meaning from it is if you either do not understand the analogy or if you have some sort of stake in wilfully misunderstanding it to misrepresent it.

I can understand how some people who work at companies whose business model is corporate surveillance (monetising data) could have been offended by the actual meaning of the analogy. And for that, I do not apologise. However, to then grasp at straws and profess outrage at a misreading of the analogy is at best a rationalisation on their part and, at worst, a disingenuous attempt to unfairly disparage my character.

For those who misunderstood or were confused by viewing bits of the exchange on Twiter without context, I hope that this post clears things up. For those of you who chose to wilfully understand it or have some other agenda to pursue, then I sincerely hope that you find something better to fill up your time with because life is too short.

And now, let’s focus on the actual issue at hand…

The problem that I outline in my previous post is a very real one and I stand by every word I wrote. The point I’m making is this:

We cannot stage a revolution in privacy and digital rights by having it sponsored by the very companies that we are revolting against.

An update

After writing all that, I have removed the analogy. Not because the analogy was not valid but because of a very different reason altogether: because the very subject matter of the analogy could be a trigger for what is a traumatic experience for certain people.

Either, as Louise pointed out in her tweet, because they had been in an environment where said abuses took part or, as I had a friend point out privately in an email, because they had been a victim of it themselves.

I was so caught up in arguing the semantics of the analogy itself, that I failed to consider the emotional reaction it could have on abuse victims. And for that I apologise. Since the point is made equally strongly without the analogy, I see no reason to keep it there and potentially trigger some people.