Donald Trump Jr's refugee analogy used to be a feminist argument
Absolutely not Skittles (AFP/File)
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Donald J Trump Jr provoked the ire of the internet last night, when he compared Syrian refugees to Skittles.
With the snappy and immediately, vastly circulated meme, Trump – the eldest son of the Republican presidential nominee – was making use of analogy – the comparison between two things that are alike in some way to highlight particular features of a thing.
There is, of course, a small problem with Trump Jr’s comparison. Skittles and refugees aren’t very much alike at all, as Twitter, and even Skittles itself, wasted no time in reminding him.
Despite its seeming ridiculousness, however, Trump Jr’s Skittles analogy has been used plenty of times before. And curiously, by the opposite side of political spectrum.
Some feminist writers have used poisoned sweets to illustrate why women are cautious around men: that if you were told 10% of a bag of sweets might be harmful, you might be worried about eating them.
Some people might be sympathetic to Trump Jr’s analogy and not the feminist argument, and vice versa. Political leanings likely play a big part in which analogy you buy into. So is the liberal response to the anti-refugee argument inconsistent?
If I did see it, if I'm not just confabulating, I think I found it persuasive. I don't find Trump Jr's graphic persuasive. Inconsistency?— Laurence Dodds (@LFDodds) 20 September 2016
Totally, some would argue. After all, both women and US voters are presenting people as sweets and making the calculation according to the possibility that some of those sweets might harm them. And in both examples we’re being presented with large groups of people, that might include, in their ranks, individuals that could cause harm.
But the sweets-are-men analogy and the Skittles-are-refugees analogies are also different. For a start, the feminist case is more concerned with justifying why women should be cautious around catcalling men Trump Jr’s argument is about states barring entry to Skittles – sorry, people – who are fleeing a war. Being cautious around a group and barring them entry to a territory are not really the same.
There’s also variation in the numbers: one in three women in the US report experiencing violence at the hands of a domestic partner. No Syrian refugees have committed a terror attack in the US. Of course, you could argue that this is because there’s not many of them in the US, but you'd still be speculating from zero. Trump Jr, on the other hand, talks about 3 Skittles in a bowl of, say, 900, which figures at a probability of about 0.033%.
Both contexts are very different. But no kinds of sweets show the nuances of the level of risk that’s involved – or the impact that responding to the perceived risk will have. It especially doesn’t communicate the impact it might have on the people that are presented as sweets. It’s not meant to: analogy is a rhetorical device, and it prioritizes persuasiveness over accuracy. Its messages might be catchy, but that doesn’t make them true.
In other words, the world is complicated, and people aren’t Skittles.