Events at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, where a group of armed adults seized a building, have generated lots of analysis (and comments on the analysis, including my colleague’s discussion of operative theories of religion). One common mode of analysis has been comparison, particularly comparisons of the media and law enforcement responses there to prior events at Waco, Occupy Wall Street, or Ferguson, among others. Within these comparisons, though, both self-identified conservatives and liberals have used the same events to promote their own positions. For example, some have highlighted how Tamir Rice was shot because his toy gun was seen as a threat but heavily armed adults occupying a federal building have not been treated as a direct threat. In contrast, a conservative website has contrasted a peaceful picture of the protestors in Oregon to images of people looting and damaging property in Ferguson and Baltimore, noting how some who label the protesters in Oregon as “terrorists” described those in Ferguson and Baltimore as simply “demonstrators”.
This range of comparisons illustrates quite well the nature of comparison generally. Each person creating a comparison must ignore a whole series of similarities and differences in order to highlight the particular similarity and difference that supports the desired conclusion. For example, many of those active in Ferguson and Baltimore were peaceful protestors, in the face of police in fully militarized gear, but the conservative website only emphasized those who damaged property, apparently unable to distinguish between people of color. Similarly, the comparison of the responses of law enforcement in Ferguson and Malheur National Wildlife Refuge must overlook the very different contexts (urban/rural) and the different dynamics in the events. In many ways, none of these comparisons are particularly sound, as each event has its unique components in terms of contexts, law enforcement agencies involved, sequence of events, and localized dynamics.
Suggesting that these comparisons are faulty does not justify the official responses. Too often police have used force unnecessarily, often against people of color. Recognizing that dynamic, though, does not change how these simplistic comparisons illustrate confirmation bias, in which people view events, and draw comparisons, based on their preexisting positions, thus interpreting them as confirming what they already knew to be true. With any comparison, it is easy to come to a whole range of conclusions, depending on how you construct the comparison. Just as political statements need to be critiqued for how they spin events to promote their own agenda, comparisons need a similar level of analysis to identify the ways those making the comparison have spun details to fit their own position.
Photo credit: “MalheurNWRHeadquarters” by Cacophony. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons