Sometimes familiar patterns pop up in the funniest of places.
Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan recently made an unfortunate comparison between the NBA and slavery. He started this contention by saying that putting more basketball courts in black neighborhoods doesn’t help inner city neighborhoods, implying that this is an empty gesture on the part of the government trying to show that they’re “giving back” to the black community. This is all fair enough, but he then went on to say these basketball courts are “a training ground for a basketball plantation”, rounding it all off by likening white NBA owners evaluating black players for the draft to white slave owners appraising black slaves at the auction blocks.
The thing is that Farrakhan might have a valid point in there somewhere. I think there is a lot to be said for the contention that building more and more basketball courts in black neighborhoods just reinforces the feeling among inner city youth that the only path to success is through becoming a professional athlete. This perception is harmful as 99% of the population have no chance whatsoever at becoming professional athletes, and are distracted from more realistic paths to improvement, i.e. education, in their pursuit of the athletic dream.
This argument can also be extended to a criticism of the big basketball colleges and the NCAA, as these often neglect the educational needs of student-athletes–a population consisting of that tiny percentage who earned an athletic scholarship–in favor of better results on the court.
Farrakhan does not make this argument in a straight, direct manner. Instead he employs hyperbolic false rhetoric in the form of a superficially valid analogy, designed to exploit the powerful emotions associated with slavery.
This is an old cheap trick. The analogy is obviously completely stupid because the two features that make slavery the abhorrent monstrosity that it is–i.e, the negation of the slaves’ freedom of choice and the lack of any compensation for their work–are decidedly absent in the NBA draft process where young athletes compete of their own free will for the right to own ungodly amounts of money for playing a game at the highest level.
Farrakhan’s purpose in employing this analogy is to reinforce his actual point by appeal to emotion rather than by rational relevant argument. I’ve said that his main point has some merit, but it can be challenged. Perhaps the basketball courts have the overall positive effect of keeping people “off the streets”, employed in harmless and healthy leisure activities, thus improving the social atmosphere in the neighborhood in general–something that is certainly conducive to greater educational success.
By taking the audience to the slavery analogy, Farrakhan goes to a place where there can be no debate or challenge, and an uncritical audience are led to look at the current basketball situation the same way, importing some of the emotion associated with the history of slavery to the perceived institutional oppression of the NBA.
This tactic only works on people who agree–or feel that they are supposed to agree–on the basic premise being exaggerated in the analogy.
In this case the basic premise is that many of the social structures and institutions in America somehow reflect and exhibit systemic racism. This is a vague idea that is nevertheless widely agreed upon in enlightened circles. Mind, this is not the same as saying that there are many individual racists still around and some are probably in positions of power. That is almost definitely true. The claim is instead that the very structure of society is designed to promote the success of white people over others, especially black folks, and that this reflects a continuation of the old slavery dynamic. Because this is widely agreed upon in Farrakhan’s audience and beyond, he can make this analogy with some success.
Supporters of Farrakhan will naturally tend to just go along with the claim without critically appraising it, but his tactic here can have an effect even outside those circles. The vast majority of those with a left-wing bent–excluding really only those with unusual degrees of independence of thought–will feel that they ought to believe that Americas institutions are inherently racist. Even those who don’t have a well-formed opinion on the matter will tend towards believing that claims of racism are probably true. To this type of audience Farrakhan’s analogy here will seem outlandish, but their emotions will be enlisted to regard it with some positivity.
Why does this remind me of a Mashgiach? Because variations of this tactic are often employed by Mashgichim.
A Mashgiach, for those who don’t know (massive amounts of whom will undoubtedly be reading this), is a spiritual “supervisor” or guide, in a Yeshiva. It is the job of the Mashgiach to look to the spiritual well-being of the students, exhorting them to greater enthusiasm in their quest for growth. A big part of the Mashgiach’s job description is to give regular talks to the students, to inspire them. Often this just takes the form of criticism, sometimes constructive, sometimes not so much.
Analogies are used very often in these talks and in the day-to-day admonitions given by authority figures in the Yeshiva, these analogies are often over the top, and these analogies are a tactic meant to work along the same lines as Farrakhan’s.
A common example is the analogy between prayer time and an appointment with the Queen of England. “If you were going to see the Queen would you not make sure to dress very nicely? How much more so when you are going to stand in front of the Almighty”. Very nice, but the problem is that if everyone saw the Queen every day, there couldn’t possibly be that level of formality that requires extremely formal dress all the time. I’ve actually seen this point made by Rabbi Shimshon Pinkus in his writings, so it’s not just me being blasphemous, which I have no intention of doing anyway.
A more instructive example is the practice of comparing the day of judgement on Rosh Hashana to an earthly murder trial. “If you were on trial for your life, would you tremble with fear and spend every waking moment for weeks before preparing for the trial? How much more so in the month leading up to your trial by God!”
Now, I am a believing Jew, and am not going to deny that there is a trial of some kind. However, the reason that people are generally not so afraid as all that in the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashana is that whatever is happening, it’s not at all like a normal murder trial. You see, it seems that people do not die at any lower rate depending on how much repenting they did before Rosh Hashana. I’ve survived every Rosh Hashana until now. It seems that young people of good health such as myself survive the vast vast majority of Rosh Hashanas, so I draw rational conclusions from these facts.
Just like in Farrakhan’s analogy, I would concede that a there is a reasonable point lying under all the cheap rhetoric. Rosh Hashana is a time for reflection, for finding ways to improve oneself. Ignoring this opportunity to take stock of our lives is an utter waste. God puts us all on trial to appraise how we have done going along the path that he sets for us, and perhaps we should take into account the possibility that drastic action might required on His part. If a Mashgiach would say these things, it would be perfectly reasonable when talking to Yeshiva students looking to grow spiritually guided by the teachings of Judaism.
This analogy plays on a principle that unsuspecting Yeshiva students unfortunately tend to feel that they ought to agree with. It is the equivalent of the claim of institutional racism to leftists. Within religious Judaism as currently constituted there is a tendency–most prevalent in Charedi circles but by no means confined to them–to think that ideas that make people feel terrible about themselves are more, shall we say, ‘religiously worthy’. The typical Yeshiva student is primed to give great credence to statements by his mentors which mean that his ‘faith’ is lacking, and that his beliefs ought to be of a more extreme nature, thus eliciting behavior that is more dedicated.
This means that when the Mashgiach uses this analogy to a murder trial, the students are unlikely to think critically about how it’s obviously not the same, because doing so will seem like betrayal of the general feeling that we should be becoming more dedicated by making are beliefs more extreme. Similarly when Farrakhan makes whatever outlandish claim about the NBA being a basketball plantation, this has an effect on people who are committed to the general idea that American institutions are racist.
Just another way in which our emotional commitment to general beliefs make us susceptible to falling for bad arguments.