BAD ANALOGIES: Gay Marriage is Like 2 + 2 = 5

Anti-gays hate the word homophobia, but we need it for those times when someone’s reaction to homosexuality makes them take leave of their senses, lose their ability to think clearly, and fail at creating coherent arguments. These are signs of a debilitating psychological disorder in play, and it’s fair to call it out as such.

For instance, conservative darling Ben Carson is a brilliant man. He’s the former director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins. In 1987 he successfully separated conjoined twins who were joined at the back of the head, in a pioneering 22-hour surgery. The man is extraordinarily gifted.

Within in his field.

At the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast, though, he gave a socially conservative speech that launched him into right-wing prominence, and he’s touted now a possible presidential contender in 2016. He wants to end political correctness and replace it with civil discourse. And he’s unhappy with people who say, “Carson is a homophobe because he believes marriage is between a man and a woman.” He tries to explain why they’re wrong, using a “helpful analogy” that mostly confirms his inability to think clearly when it comes to teh gays.

It’s sort of like a new group of mathematicians that come along, and they say 2+2=5. And the traditionalists say, ‘No, it’s 4, it’s always been 4, it always will be 4.’ And the new ones say, ‘No, we insist that it’s 5.’ So, that the traditionalists say, ‘I’ll tell you what, for you it can can be five; we’re keeping it as 4.’ And then, the new ones say, ‘No, no, it has to be 5 for you, and if it’s not, then you’re a mathosaur or a mathophobe. And basically, that’s the situation we find ourselves in.

Now, these are carefully considered remarks offered in a friendly setting. Nevertheless, there is so very, very much wrong with this analogy.

First, we have a term for mathematicians rely on “tradition” to explain why 2+2=4; we call them not mathematicians. Just as we’d refer to deep thinkers who rely on tradition to oppose same-sex marriage as not deep thinkers. Turns out it’s surprisingly complex to prove 2+2=4, but tradition is not the way to do it.

Second, this business about, “I’ll tell you what, for you it can can be five; we’re keeping it as 4,” is exactly wrong. We’re the ones saying, “I’ll tell you what, some marriages can be a man and a woman, and others can be a woman and a woman or a man and a man.” And they’re the ones saying, “No, no, it has to be a man and a woman, and if you disagree then you’re a name-calling anti-Christian homofascist.”

Finally, of course, we’re not saying that 2+2=5. I don’t want to get too literal, but an analogy ought to at least feel like the thing it’s analogizing. Look at the structure of 2+2=4. It’s about two things coming together to form a unit. That’s an obvious analogy for marriage, and because we’re saying our marriages are real and genuine marriages, we’re saying that our marriages add up to 4 just like Carson’s does.

Which leads to my suggestion for how to counter his analogy — because let’s face it, you don’t want to lecture for three or four paragraphs to make your point. Instead you can just reply:

We’re not saying 2+2=5. We’re saying 2+2=4. And so does 1+3. And 3+1. Different combinations can add up to 4, just like different combinations can add up to marriage. Saying only a man and a woman can create a marriage is like saying only 2+2 can equal 4.

And I think that’s the best way of dealing with these bad analogies. Take them over, make them better, and turn them against the speaker’s original point. There’s something very satisfying about that.

This is fun. I’m working up something on Same-sex marriage is like a square circle, and if you’ve come across any other bad analogies you want to examine, put them in the comments (with a link, if you can).