When you’re in a hole, employ a gross oversimplification

During the 2008 leaders’ debates, Helen told viewers that ‘you don’t change horses midstream’. This pithy statement was made in the midst of an election campaign dominated by steadily worsening news of the crown’s financial situation.

As a simple statement, it makes a good deal of sense. When crossing a river on horseback, you probably don’t want to get off one horse and onto another right in the middle. What baffles me is that Helen, or anyone else, would think that a piece of wisdom relating to cross-country equestrianism has any relevance whatsoever to who should lead a country during a recession.

What properties to streams and rivers share with global financial crises? What attributes does Helen share with a horse? I’ll re-phrase that: which of the attributes that Helen shares with a horse are relevant in this context? And while dismounting her, were we required to stand in the middle of the financial crisis while preparing to mount John Key?

At the time, I remember thinking that the most obvious flaw in the analogy was that it would have been more accurate to describe Helen as the jockey and the rest of the country as the horse. Any sensible horse ridden into a river would be well advised to throw its rider if the rider kept trying to steer it into the worst of the current. But I no longer believe that this is the major flaw; rather I object to her ever having attempted to use such a facile analogy.

Analogies such as the above are a cynical attempt to exploit the type of voter disinclined to think too deeply about an issue, and ready to accept a lazy, irrelevant soundbite as a substitute for a coherent argument.

Helen, of course, still lost and bothers us no more. But her party still seem rather fond of misleading analogies as a means of political discourse. The primary case in point being the cornerstone of Labour’s campaign to date: “when you’re in a hole, why sell your ladder?”

Again, there is an appealing superficial relevance. But once again, a flat economy is not a hole, and state owned enterprises are not a ladder. Once again, it’s a cynical simplification of a complex issue to appeal to uninformed voters’ suspicion of asset sales.

Analogies can be an aid to understanding complex concepts, but in political discourse as far as I can see their primary purpose is misdirection.


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