Of Analogies, Rorschach Tests, and Elder Oaks

It might seem a little mundane to say that a single analogy can be used in contrasting ways to serve the interests of discursive power grabs, but the constant resurfacing of Elder Oaks’ BYUI talk makes me jump, Johnny-Come-Lately, into the fray. The implicit claim in the many vociferous critiques of Elder Oaks’ talk that the Left has a monopoly on Civil Rights analogies strikes me as deeply ironic. As I recall, last year several public media outlets hosted guests that questioned the link supporters of gay marriage were making to civil rights, sans the acerbic attack implicit in the objection. What current objectors really seem to mean is that they’re horrified that someone should take the sacred cow (probably the most effective claim made, viz. that to deny gays the right to marry is analogous to a denial of Blacks the right to vote, join “white” schools, etc.) and press it into service toward other ends.

Obviously, you can’t copyright an analogy, and, furthermore, any comparison can be valid depending on the parameters constructed (who says you can’t compare apples and oranges? I certainly can!). Elder Oaks did, despite the willful ignorance of this in the media, attempt to delineate the limits of the comparison. In the end, perhaps as with most analogies, what you see in constructing and reacting to especially political comparisons says more about you than it does about anything else.

  • jupiterschild

    Let me say as well that I don’t think it was the most fitting analogy to make. I have read the entire talk and I think that an invocation of the McCarthy era to discuss the persecution of LDS and other objectors to same-sex marriage would have been much more effective in characterizing the reaction.

  • http://lfab-uvm.blogspot.com chanson

    It’s not a question of the left having a “monopoly on Civil Rights analogies.” It’s that when you make an analogy, it should be because the analogy makes sense and helps clarify the situation. Not because: “Hey if they get to say their side is about civil rights, then we can say our side is like civil rights, too — otherwise it’s no fair!”

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris H.

    “Hey if they get to say their side is about civil rights, then we can say our side is like civil rights, too — otherwise it’s no fair!”

    While some people may what some people are saying (a result of our limited political rhetoric which always ends up relying on some simplistic concept of rights), this is not what Elder Oaks is doing. I think his argument was specific to the idea of voter intimidation. The point is valid and applies to both sides of the issue.

  • http://eatingwell.wordpress.com Sam B.

    chanson,
    The use of analogies (including civil rights analogies) in political discourse is not about clarifying the situation. It’s about rhetorical shorthand and establishing one’s place in history. Fox News’s Tea Party Protestors’ invocation of the Boston Tea Party wasn’t done in order to clarify what they stood for; it was done, rather, to legitimize their argument (because we’re doing what historical good guys did) and, moreover, to make and implicit argument without actually making the argument.

    And as Chris H. points out, parts of the civil rights analogy apply very well to the Church’s position, and parts apply to the same-sex marriage supporters’ position. (Moreover, it’s worth noting that, early in the debate, some of the actual people being invoked from the civil rights movement objected to the same-sex marriage supporters’ use of the civil rights movement. It doesn’t mean that the supporters couldn’t use the analogy, or even that it didn’t fit, but there was certainly slippage between the 60s civil rights movement and the same-sex marriage movement.)

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris H.

    The Tea Party example shows how these argument are very problematic. Appeals to principle are much better than historical comparisons. Glenn Beck is no Samual Adams and Mormons campaigning for Prop 8 are no Freedom Riders. However, this does not mean that constitutional and democratic principles are relevant to these more recent issues.

  • http://ethesis.blogspot.com/ Stephen M (Ethesis)

    Thanks for this post, I found it useful for helping me make my own.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris H.

    jupiterschild,

    “The implicit claim in the many vociferous critiques of Elder Oaks’ talk that the Left has a monopoly on Civil Rights analogies strikes me as deeply ironic.”

    Some of us on the left are sensitive to the right using the Civil Rights analogy because the right has been trying to chip away at the civil rights legacy for the last 40 years. While I do not dismiss Elder Oaks as being simply part of “the right,” the reaction is part of a bigger context. Probably the biggest problem is that much of the reaction, pro and con, to the Elder Oaks talk has been reacting to sound bites and not the overall argument.

  • http://www.feastuponthewordblog.org BrianJ

    “who says you can’t compare apples and oranges? I certainly can!”

    Amen! And excellent post.

  • http://www.kingsxrocks.com/ FHL

    I think this whole Oaks scandal is as bad as the Holocaust!

  • Ray

    Stripping away the unmistakable tone of defensiveness that underlies most responses to Elder Oaks’ remarks, it still must stand as a poor choice for an analogy. If the church had a long and impressive record of speaking out for civil rights, it might be appropriate. Since the church not only remained silent during America’s struggle for civil rights but actually opposed that struggle, it can only be viewed as inappropriate.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris H.

    “If the church had a long and impressive record of speaking out for civil rights, it might be appropriate.”

    Prominent members of the Church were on both sides of the Civil RIghts movement/issue. This does not mean that the Church cannot look out for the rights of its members or make historical comparison. The Civil Rights analogy made by Elder Oaks was a specific and narrow one.

  • Manuel

    I second Ray’s opinion. Although I think many more things were inappropriate or out of line with his speech than the now infamous analogy.

    I enjoyed his narrative and examples used to set the tone of why it is important to preserve religious freedom.

    I personally have never experienced religious persecution by a non-religious entity, therefore I have no say in that. In my experience, religion gets away with a lot these days. In the name of religion many evil things have been done, from wars to exterminations to the brutal abuse of others.

    Even today, every now and then I hear in the news of children being horribly neglected medically because “their parents believed God would heal the child through prayer and that science is a bad thing.”

    It is fair to mention that in the context of the civil rights movement, racism, segregation, and in general the abuse of minorities was justified in great part through religion. Historically, and in my very personal opinion, religion has many times spread ignorance like a wild fire and stupidity and fanaticism like a disease. Religion has not always been a blessing, and although I advocate religious freedom, I am not sure I have to “arm myself and head to battle.”

    The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hasn’t been an exception in spreading ignorance, fanaticism and plain anti-Christian attitudes. Let’s not forget the nauseating remarks by Elder Mark E. Petersen, in which he compares embracing Blacks with embracing sin, and justifies segregation on a religious foundation.

    The Church unfortunately hasn’t bothered the least bit to make amends for these insulting remarks and many others either uttered or published by members of either the first presidency or the quorum of the twelve.

    All of the sudden and notwithstanding the appalling attitudes against blacks that the Church has previously held, Elder Oaks uses the struggles of Blacks during the Civil Rights Movement to situate the Church as the victim of similar persecution. For some of us, it is simply a slap in the face, not to mention an ignorant and pretentious position.

    The scandal to me is telling of several things. One: The Church is in clear denial that its previous appalling attitudes against blacks set an extremely strong tone in how people perceive us to this very day. Because of this denial, our leaders feel they don’t need to address the historical racism practiced by the Church, and that people should be able to somehow look beyond it. Not only do they expect this, Elder Oaks seems to be demanding it. Two: The celebrity status that general authorities like Elder Oaks enjoy in the LDS community, has unfortunately created some sort of a parallel sheltered universe, and whenever they step out of it and face the reality of constitutionally protected criticism and opposition, they assume it amounts to true persecution; so much so that they will make ridiculous comparisons and analogies.

    The only persecution he is justified in publicly repudiating is the vandalism of buildings and the firing of personnel or creating hostile work environments for being LDS. Both are unlawful acts and thus are fully persecuted by the law and the law provides proper channels to deal with them. But to compare this persecution to the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement, well that just sounds both ignorant and pretentious at the same time.

    Protests are legal, boycotts are legal, freedom of speech and the expression of our opponents is legal. Being elegible for same sex marriage in California, as short lived as it was, was a legitimate legal right, not an “alleged” right. It is not for Elder Oaks to decide what is legally legitimate and what is “alleged.” While marriage is not legally a right but a privilege, being eligible for marriage is a legal right, and that legal right was indeed granted by a legal system.

    His remarks about a religious test against a candidate are also out of line. Voters have the right to consider every aspect of a candidate’s lifestyle in the voting process, including their religious beliefs. If the voters decide some religious views could be detrimental to the benefit of the whole jurisdiction over which the candidate will be elected, they have the right to vote against that candidate. If voters in Maryland feel they are not going to choose a candidate because he is a member of a White Supremacist Religion, they have the full right to do so. If the people of the United States don’t feel comfortable if a candidate was a member of an extremist Muslim sect, they have the right to vote against that candidate. In fact, the conservative media did everything they could to slander Barak Obama while he was running for president with false accusations that he was a Muslim. If a known Evangelical anti-Mormon were to try to run for governor in Utah, I bet the LDS members (Elder Oaks included) would also exercise their right to decide whether or not his religious background should be taken in consideration for this particular jurisdiction. Therefore, his rant for a Mormon candidate that was not voted to continue running for president is also telling of the Church’s denial about the effect its past actions have had on the minds of others.

  • CJ Douglass

    Well said Manuel. I say the comparison can be made – but it can NEVER be made by a Mormon.

    What troubles me most is that Elder Oaks, with his background and intelligence, can’t see how terribly insulting it is for a Mormon to make this sort of comparison. It leads me to the same conclusion as Manuel’s #1:

    The Church is in clear denial that its previous appalling attitudes against blacks set an extremely strong tone in how people perceive us to this very day. Because of this denial, our leaders feel they don’t need to address the historical racism practiced by the Church, and that people should be able to somehow look beyond it. Not only do they expect this, Elder Oaks seems to be demanding it.

  • Manuel

    Jupiterschild,

    “The implicit claim in the many vociferous critiques of Elder Oaks’ talk that the Left has a monopoly on Civil Rights analogies strikes me as deeply ironic.”

    I don’t know you but I am sure if you become a bit better informed you will understand the position of those of us who think that the “sacred cow” as you sarcastically state, doesn’t belong in the hands of Elder Oaks. Perhaps what should probably strike you as ironic is Elder Oak’s usage of the analogy in light of the following statements made by LDS leaders specifically about the Civil Rights Movement:

    The discussion on civil rights, especially over the last 20 years, has drawn some very sharp lines. It has blinded the thinking of some of our own people, I believe. They have allowed their political affiliations to color their thinking to some extent, and then, of course, they have been persuaded by some of the arguments that have been put forth….We who teach in the Church certainly must have our feet on the ground and not to be led astray by the philosophies of men on this subject.

    It is a good thing to understand exactly what the Negro has in mind on this subject, I’ll be talking about other races besides Negroes, of course, but it is the Negro question which pinpoints it, so I would like to talk first of all about the Negro and his civil rights. We who teach in the Church certainly must have our feet on the ground and not be led astray by the philosophies of men on this subject any more than any other subject.

    I think I have read enough to give you an idea of what the Negro is after. He is not just seeking the opportunity of sitting down in a cafe where white people eat. He isn’t just trying to ride on the same streetcar or the same Pullman car with white people. It isn’t that he just desires to go to the same theater as the white people. From this, and other interviews I have read, it appears that the Negro seeks absorption with the white race. He will not be satisfied until he achieves it by intermarriage. That is his objective and we must face it. We must not allow our feelings to carry us away, nor must we feel so sorry for Negroes that we will open our arms and embrace them with everything we have. Remember the little statement that we used to say about sin, “First we pity, then endure, then embrace.”

    The Lord segregated the people both as to blood and place of residence. At least in the cases of the Lamanites and the Negro we have the definite word of the Lord Himself that he placed a dark skin upon them as a curse — as a punishment and as a sign to all others. He forbade intermarriage with them under threat of extension of the curse. And He certainly segregated the descendants of Cain when He cursed the Negro as to the Priesthood, and drew an absolute line. You may even say He dropped an Iron curtain there.

    I think the Lord segregated the Negro and who is man to change that segregation? It reminds me of the scripture on marriage, “what God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.” Only here we have the reverse of the thing — what God hath separated, let not man bring together again.

    (Elder Mark E. Peterson, Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Race Problems — As They Affect The Church, Convention of Teachers of Religion on the College Level, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, August 27, 1954.)

    The preceding paragraphs, are part of a 16 page document that later became a pamphlet. It was intended to provide an authoritative source for teachers to teach LDS religion. It was perhaps one of the most intensive efforts to fight the Civil Rights Movement, support segregationist practices, and racist views regarding minorities, especially blacks.

    The following is Ezra T. Benson’s claim that the Civil Rights Movement was a Communist conspiracy to destroy “America.”

    The Communist program for revolution in America has been in progress for many years and is far advanced. While it can be thwarted in a fairly short period of time merely by sufficient exposure, the evil effects of what has already been accomplished cannot be removed overnight. The animosities, the hatred, the extension of government control into our daily lives — all this will take time to repair. The already-inflicted wounds will be slow in healing. But they can be healed; that is the important point.

    First of all, we must not place the blame upon Negroes. They are merely the unfortunate group that has been selected by professional Communist agitators to be used as the primary source of cannon fodder. Not one in a thousand Americans — black or white — really understands the full implications of today’s civil rights agitation. The planning, direction, and leadership come from the Communists, and most of those are white men who fully intend to destroy America by spilling Negro blood, rather than their own.

    We must insist that duly authorized legislative investigating committees launch an even more exhaustive study and expose the degree to which secret Communists have penetrated into the civil rights movement. …

    (Ezra T. Benson, Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, General Conference Report, October 1967)

    Do you perhaps notice a familiar pattern? Perhaps slippery slope predictions of an eminent danger? “The negroes were seeking to be fully absorbed into the white race by intermarrying and that way curse the whole nation.” “The communists were using the Civil Rights Movement to destroy America.” “Gay marriage is an attack on the traditional family and on our rights. “The Healthcare reform is a conspiracy by President Obama to expand the government to eventually turn the USA into the USSR.” Blah blah blah blah.

    They are the same tactics used by conservatives for generations. “Be afraid, be very afraid.” Now, the conservatives are trying to use the Civil Rights Movements for this very tactic. Ha, now THAT is ironic.

    Now what does the Church have to say about this? After all, members had to sustain these men as “Prophets, Seers and Revelators.” Failing to do so could cost members their Temple blessings, event the membership in the Church. The silence is numbing.

    Oh and can some of you people who claim that “prominent members were pro civil rights” provide specific examples? I have not been able to find a single one of the critical period. It is easy to be pro-civil rights after the fight’s peak.

    There are some statements by the church, yet they seem to be PR stunts to avoid temple square picketing by NAACP. I haven’t found any initiatives by the Church, just mere cavalier responses. So, this idea that “prominent leaders were on both sides” seems to be just another inflated statement.


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