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Degrees of isomorphism, equivalence or analogy

Guidelines for Critical Dialogue between Worldviews: as exemplified by the need for non-antisemitic dialogue with Israelis? (Part #7)

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The many examples given above have been presented to highlight similarities between seemingly quite disparate domains and behaviours. The argument here is that in terms of dialogue there are instructive parallels between them. The question is how to determine the degree of similarity.

One mode of argument has it that unless there is exact equivalence then any comparison is inappropriate. This might be called the "binary" approach. The challenge to the relevance of this approach might be illustrated by:

  • male-female: clearly there is very extensive resemblance and, in physical terms,whether a person is male or female is normally unquestionable (if only for legal and administrative purposes). This argument is however problematic in the case of the many physical complexities of transexuality where the degrees of maleness or femaleness are an important issue. It is problematic genetically in that there is a high degree of similarity (especially in comparison with other species). More importantly, irrespective of physical arguments, behaviourally and psychologically a person may be better described as having significant proportion of the opposite characteristics to those of any physical gender. The proportion is known to shift over the life cycle.
  • species: genetically it is now usefully recognized to what extent humans share important proportions of DNA with primates and with many other species
  • profiling: security services consider it meaningful to use profiling techniques to isolate those suspected of criminal and terrorist activity, however much the same traits may be shared by others without those tendencies

In terms of its formative effects on those who survive, there is a case for comparing more readily comprehensible forms of abuse with those whose horror remains a major challenge to comprehension. Examples include:

  • the psycho-physical impact of rape on an individual women in comparison with the psycho-physical impact of massacre on a people
  • the total destruction of villages (as in Lebanon) with the total destruction of cities (by fire-bombing)

A more fruitful approach is therefore to move beyond the binary approach and to recognize statistical degrees of equivalence or isomorphism -- pattern fitting. The issue is the percentage similarity in the cases identified above and at what point the degree of similarity is fruitful rather than misleading.

Equipped with such a framework it then becomes possible to explore the degree of validity (or lack thereof) to the highly controversial and emotive comparisons increasingly made between:

  • the use of torture by the Catholic Inquisition in order to save souls and that advocated by George Bush to save Christian democratic values
  • the behaviour of American neocons and that of the Nazi leadership, especially in the light of calls for Nuremburg style war crime trials and efforts by George Bush to introduce retroactive legislation to grant his regime immunity from indictment under the war crimes act
  • South African apartheid and "reservations" for indigenous populations in some western countries -- or the treatment of Palestinians in the Middle East
  • the isolation of minority groups in many countries, notably in the Middle East, into what resemble ghettos

It is more instructive to recognize the degree of similarity between a preferred pattern of behaviour and one considered reprehensible, rather than to dismiss such comparison because the statistical fit is not 100%.

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