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  • Writer's pictureDr. Benjamin J. Williams

Comparisons in an Age of Rage

There is nothing I like more than a good comparison.

Whether framed as metaphors, similes, or a good ol' parable, comparisons are essential tools of communication. However, too much of modern debate - between talking heads or Facebook commentators - spirals into unhelpful comparisons.

"Jesus is like ..."

"Trump is just a ..."

"You are basically ..."

If you want to participate in dialing down the rage and dialing up the level of meaningful debate, you need some rhetorical guidelines, and there is no better starting place than the proper use of comparisons.

The Philosophy of Comparisons

In principle, all communication is carried out through comparisons. The fascinating and controversial Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) proposed that the world is made of up states of affairs we call facts. Furthermore, he stated that "a logical picture of facts is a thought." In this sense, any time a thought is communicated, the goal is to trigger in the receiver of the communication a picture by which to make sense of the thought. Every word or sentence we use combines to trigger an image in the mind that conveys the sense we intend.

Admittedly, Wittgenstein's view is a bit technical, bordering on incomprehensible in fact, but the basic premise holds even for less rigorous discussions. When a speaker says, "Obama is a Muslim," they are asking you to compare and ultimately in some sense to equate two images. The first is former President Barack Obama, and the second is whatever stock image your mind contains of Islamic practitioners (I'm guessing Osama bin Laden). Likewise, when a speaker says, "Trump is basically Hitler," you are being told to superimpose the mustached face of the Third Reich on top of President Donald Trump.

My first observation then about the use of comparisons in public dialogue then is this: Comparisons are unavoidable. Because all language consists of comparisons, we are programmed to operate in this method from our first words. It is absurd to suggest that our rhetoric drop comparisons completely. We can however be more intentional and careful in their use.

For example, we should note that comparisons are always either limited or mere tautologies. A tautology is a comparison between two identical objects. "An apple is an apple." In this statement, the predicate does not actual provide any additional information about the subject because the two are in fact identical. Consequently, tautologies are not helpful comparisons for communicating or persuading. Telling you that the Higgs-Boson is the Higgs-Boson did not deepen your knowledge.

The alternative to a tautology is a limited comparison. In a limited comparison, we are admitting that the object and the predicate are not identical. The two are alike in some ways but not others. I remember a teacher saying, "There are no synonyms, only poorly defined words." The sentiment of that maxim applies here. Comparisons rarely claim that two objects are completely and thoroughly identical.

Take for example a standard line for Jesus. "The kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard" (Matthew 20:1). Clearly, the rule of God in his Creation is not in every way identical to a man hiring field hands. Jesus is only claiming that in some limited way the two are alike. Something about the one is sufficiently similar to the other to warrant comparison and thereby enhance understanding.

The important implication here is that the listener must attempt to understand in what way the two objects are alike. Imagine the following conversation about Christian liberty in America. A woman says, "Christians today are being persecuted." A man responds, "How can that be when Christians vastly outnumber non-Christians in the U.S.?" The woman responds with a comparison, "Well, it's like how under South African Apartheid the minority white population oppressed the majority non-white population." Outraged, the man responds, "Are you comparing Christian treatment in the U.S. to the horror of Apartheid?"

This hypothetical conversation ended without any useful information being successfully transmitted. No one was persuaded by what was said. Probably the conversation ended with anger instead of understanding. What happened? The fault here lies with both the speaker and the hearer.

Speaking of Comparisons

When using comparisons, realize that our current cultural climate has been prepped for battle. The power-brokers of our age have bridled their influence - not through calm rhetoric - but through the use of outrage and anger. Consequently, we live in a culture of poor listeners. We have been trained to listen with an argument in mind, framing our outraged response before the other person finishes their sentence. To speak in a culture primed for explosion, we must use greater prudence.

When using obvious comparisons ("This is like that"), ask yourself if the comparison is emotionally charged. To begin with, use Godwin's Law and don't compare anything or anyone to Hitler. Just don't do it. It isn't that no one is in anyway like Hitler. When I see a young protester waving a swastika flag, I assume that he is in some way like Hitler. It's just that the Hitler comparison rarely gets us closer to our goals of communication and persuasion.

Likewise, avoid all comparisons in public discussions to paradigmatic evil: Nazis, Apartheid, the Holocaust, slavery, genocide, etc. Comparisons like these make folk who already agree with you nod approvingly while people who oppose you fume with anger. No one is better for it. There are better ways to make your point. I promise.

The Hearing of Comparisons

When it comes to hearing a comparison, the sad truth is that I cannot control how people hear me. But I can control how I hear. Jesus often rebukes poor hearers and holds people accountable for how they listen. "For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them" (Matthew 13:15).

When listening to comparisons, remember that the comparison is almost always limited. No one thinks Donald Trump is in fact the reincarnation of Hitler. What the speaker is likely saying is that some facet of the President's policy of behavior is similar enough to Hitler's to warrant comparison. The implication being, if it was bad for Hitler, it must also be bad when the President does it. According to my own rule above, it is a bad comparison, but that doesn't mean I cannot hear it successfully.

To go a step further, ask why the speaker chose this comparison. For example, why is Hitler such a popular paradigm of evil? Probably because he is the one figure in recent history whom even the most pluralistic, amoral, do-whatever-you-want ethics professor can agree represents real evil in the world. More than that, it tells you what the speaker fears and values. It even tells you a little about how he views history and anticipates the future.

Rather than expressing your righteous indignation, pause and ask, "What is this admittedly less than ideal comparison communicating to me?"

Responding to Comparisons

Finally, when the comparisons are coming fast and furious, you will want to respond. Often, the temptation is to respond in kind. "Trump is like Hitler!" "Well, Democrats are like Russian Communists marching their opposition off to Siberia!" And worse. And then much worse.

Instead, I want to suggest that the appropriate response to a comparison, especially a poorly chosen one, is a question: "How so?" And then silence. It turns out that comparisons are easier to form than to explain. More helpful, when a speaker is forced to explain the comparison, often they will amend it or even abandon it. Yes, a small few will double-down and make their own day worse (a la Sean Spicer's Worst Day Ever), but most will not.

Jesus uses this tactic quite often. Whenever he feels that the rhetoric of his opponent is uneven or incoherent, Jesus just asks, "How do you read it?" (Luke 10:26). Explain to me your understanding. In this Jesus, himself a master of comparisons and communication, shows himself also to be a master listener.

At Last ... Silence

If all else fails, remember we have yet another option in our conversational tool box. Wittgenstein's final premise of communication states: "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence." He intended this as a critique of philosophy, but we might harness it more literally as a rule for speech. If we cannot find a helpful way to engage a conversation laden with disastrous comparisons and outrage, we have the option of silence or at least a long pause.

Someone is already typing a response to that last line. "Christians cannot be silent! We have to speak up!" Of course. But we don't have to speak quickly.

"Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger" (James 1:19).

I am always stunned by Jesus' silence in his trials. "He answered them not a word." Why is the master rhetorician suddenly mute? Perhaps Jesus recognized that silence was a more powerful weapon at this moment than another parable.

We have the option of patience, and maybe a trip back to the comparison drawing board to craft a better approach to communication. There is always another metaphor awaiting you. Another picture. Another parable. Truth is a diamond - one reality, reflecting light from myriad angles. (See what I did there. That was a comparison.) There are more ways to communicate truth yet untried than have ever been tried. Keep trying.

Speaking with Salt

"Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person." (Colossians 4:6) The world needs more Christians engaged in helpful conversations. We need to listen better, we need to speak better, and sometimes we need take deep breaths and try again. Politely. A great comparison is the seasoning that either perfects the meal or spoils the dish. Use them and hear them wisely.

Otherwise, you are basically Hitler.


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