Earlier this month I wrote Intro to Rhetoric to serve as the foundation piece for our new series on practical uses of literary devices. In this series we will be looking at various lit devices and their uses in normal, everyday conversation. More specifically, I hope to demonstrate 1) how these often seemingly stale concepts actually help bring a lot of life into our conversations, 2) that they are within our grasp, and 3) that they are absolutely essential to elegant and effective communication.
The first lit device we will be looking at are analogies.
Analogies are, simply put, comparisons. More precisely, to quote Wikipedia:
“The process of analogical inference involves noting the shared properties of two or more things, and from this basis inferring that they also share some further property…”
Whenever you’re arguing with someone and you find yourself falling back on a phrase like “Okay, look – it’s like this…”, you are using an analogy to express an idea that might have otherwise been too abstract or complicated for your audience to easily grasp.
Analogies are great when you come up against people’s deeply ingrained beliefs, and if you use them well there’s less of a chance of you tripping defense mechanisms that could otherwise close someone’s mind to your influence and switch them into a position-based frame, which isn’t useful for anyone, except on a superficial level, as they’ll no longer be open to analyzing their deeply held beliefs with you (and may even be less likely to do so in the future in any situation, as they could become inundated to that line of argument, even from their own minds. Think newly converted Christian youth sent out on college campuses to ask people if they believe in god. Sure, they’re out recruiting, but the core reason they are out there is actually so they become maximally inundated to the influence of anyone outside of their religious group on their worldview, including themselves). You also will most likely be morally policed by someone whose defenses have been triggered once they begin to “take the argument personally” and reflexively lash out at you. The relationship will suffer, and both of you will walk away dissatisfied or maybe even physically injured.
So from here we can establish the two core uses of analogies: 1) snapping your audience out of autopilot, and 2) making what you say memorable and easy to grasp; conveying a potentially abstract notion in more concrete terms.
In my introduction to this series I used the analogy of The House of Light, comparing one’s persona to a house, to demonstrate the effectiveness of analogies. Though you may argue that my formulation of the persona is reductionist in that article (which it necessarily is, by the way), you can see how I took some of the most abstract notions around (self, consciousness, persona, ethics) and broke them down into an analogy that hopefully made their relationship a bit more concrete and graspable.
Escalating our discussion briefly into a more abstract realm, we can see how myths too are analogies. By myths I mean shared stories that code for people’s behavior (through socially sanctioned circuits of knowing and feeling) through a mutual image of the world stage, resting on the affirmation of transcendental existence and, particularly, the significance of human life. Since the advent of the written word humanity has been able to code behavior in more rigid and all-encompassing ways, and this has been instrumental in the development of society as we know it, with the vast stores of cached mental models that we’re born into. Just think of the cultural influence of the stories found in The Bible. Or even just Harry Potter or the myth of Santa Claus. These stories (especially the many versions of The Bible) are hugely influential – synchronizing human behavior on a very deep level; on the level of an individual’s core beliefs. And this power is maintained through the use of analogies.
But in your conversations you’re probably not going to be espousing epic monomyths – instead you’ll be using the device much more immediately and simply.
So now that we’ve dove head first into the deep end, let’s look at analogies in a more practical sense.
Why We Need Analogies
Simply put, people just aren’t that good at thinking about things without a point of reference. I can hold up a pen and ask you “Is this big or small?” and you’ll respond, but it will not seem logically or emotionally significant to you, as it lacks a meaningful context. However, if I put that pencil next to the moon, it relatively appears so small that it becomes practically invisible, while compared to an atom it is absolutely enormous. That’s why, if you want to communicate with any degree of clarity, you must provide a point of reference to convey the scope and purpose of your message. And that is where analogies come in.
Analogies are also useful to convince others that your stance on a topic, behavior, or course of action is the right one to take. A good debater may know how to argue and win the side he believes in, but a great debater can argue something he doesn’t even believe and still win. This is where ethical rhetoric comes in. As you build your skill in rhetoric, it is important to develop self-restraint alongside it, or else you’ll turn overly-Machiavellian – which can manifest rather disgracefully in typical situations.
But for now, let’s pass over the need for ethical rhetoricians and look at some specific benefits of using analogies (besides the core two of snapping your audience out of autopilot and making what you say memorable and unique) and then a few things to be wary of when using them.
- They’re good for arguing people out of deeply ingrained beliefs.
- Example: Beliefs I often find myself arguing about are “money is evil/the solution to all my problems”, “a person is the sum of his social roles”, “a wish is the same as a goal”, and “love is passive teamwork”.
- They’re good for teaching abstract things in a way that is easily graspable.
- Example: Instead of me going on about all the virtues of having a unified character and explaining the history of philosophers’ thought on consciousness and being, I gave you a simple heuristic analogy that you can grasp much more easily.
- When you give people a familiar example, the new, abstract mental model will more easily integrate into their overall mental framework.
- They add color and personality to what you are saying – making your listeners pay attention.
- Rap singers do this all the time. Instead of just continuously saying “I’m extremely rich and I sleep with a lot women” they tend to mix it up with things like: “I have stacks of cash” and “Hos be straight trippin’.”
- If you use them effectively you are more likely to be able to argue both sides of an argument and win.
Words of Warning
- It’s easy to use analogies that seem accurate on a superficial level but that, on a deeper level, are completely misleading.
- Therefore you need to be pretty responsible with analogies, as, when you get good at rhetoric, it’s easy to lead people to believing things that you could easily have just pulled out of thin air. So always explore the holes of your analogies and make sure you aren’t misleading people. Not only is doing so bad for them, it is also bad for your credibility.
- Example: The Watchmaker Analogy:
- The universe is like a watch.
A watch must have a watchmaker.
The universe, being like a watch, must have a designer.
- The universe is like a watch.
This is a False Analogy, where it may sound nice, but it becomes absurd upon closer scrutiny. When you make an analogy like this, be prepared to also add that it extends only to a very limited degree. And also, in this specific situation, it would be honest (but unlikely for someone actually to do so) to add that you started with your conclusion and worked from there.
It’s very easy to make whatever point you want to make if you simply know how to make it (professional debator/politician). So take care to use them responsibly.
It’s important to test and try and find the holes in your own analogies, and ideally to only speak authoritatively on things you have firsthand experience in. Think of how easily a cult leader leads people down completely illusory paths and how pundits and talk show hosts always come off so certain, no matter what they’re talking about. You should be wary of anyone who has a strong opinion on something they don’t have loads of firsthand experience with.
Using analogies well in your conversations will up your credibility and help you convince people that what you’re arguing for is right. With this new power you also would be well-off developing a sense of responsibility alongside it, or else you’ll mislead a lot of people, and this will most likely come back to bite you in the butt if you don’t.
But if you can practice restraint and use them carefully, you’ll be amazed at how far just a few adroit analogies will take your conversations.