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Contrasts and comparisons, direct or implied, should be used carefully and sparingly.
Familiar cultural archetypes, memes, symbols and stories provide quick explanations, especially when we're scared, confused, angry or want to make a joke. Attempts to keep up with or surpass peers can be a relatively healthy way to improve personally, try harder and behave better.
These ways of comparing/contrasting work best when based on information. Averages, milestones, bench marks and other statistics are comparisons/contrasts we build into business, schools, government and more.
Problems arise when such data are misapplied, misinterpreted or manipulated, injecting unnecessarily competitive tones.
For example, telling Student X to "be more like Student Y" is pointless. It doesn’t explain what needs to change or how to do it. X might struggle to comply and begin to resent Y, who doesn’t like being singled out.
Is the goal for X to acquire a certain skill? What is that skill, and how can X adopt it? Y's proficiency is a benchmark, and clear milestones can chart the path toward acquiring the skill. Using a compare/contrast this way emphasizes development.
Likewise, comparisons/contrasts in the vein of “best" or "worst" can be deeply polarizing. Consider my experience, which is typical of Gen-Xers: If I complained, a Greatest or Silent generation grandparent mentioned the Great Depression and a baby boomer parent ignored me.
The New Statesman’s Noam Chomsky article put me in that mindset. Its headline is a quote: "We're approaching the most dangerous point in human history."
Chomsky, 93, referenced one of his grade-school reports: The fall of Austria, Czechoslovakia and Barcelona meant "the red cloud of fascism was spreading over the whole world, inexorable."
"That was February 1939, and I haven't changed my opinion since. It's just gotten worse," said Chomsky in a video clip from the interview.
One indicator is the Trump administration sped up the doomsday clock on nuclear weapon launches, said Chomsky. (From 2017 to 2020, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reported "Current Time" dropped from 2 minutes 30 seconds to 100 seconds.)
Chomsky added the war in Ukraine, Trump's continued influence and Brexit to the list. His examples and overall gravitas make it tempting to ignore what might be logical fallacies.
Except, I can’t. It’s wrong to blindly accept emotional appeals and wild comparisons/contrasts solely out of respect for elders.
I agree times are dire. But the elements of human-made destruction like genocide, famine, war and disease are not a competition.
Maybe he said “most dangerous point in human history” to spur us to action. It’s not like he’d want to be proven correct. The possibility he’s wrong reveals another reason comparing and contrasting --- especially extremes --- is ineffective.
Often, the use of such rhetorical weapons reveals bias, inequity, hyperbole, ignorance or all of the above.
The most notorious is described by Godwin's Law: As an online discussion continues, the probability of a reference or comparison to Hitler or Nazis approaches 1. (This includes the contrast-based application —-that someone might say, “It’s not as bad as Hitler/Nazis.”)
Overall, invoking Hitler or Nazis to contextualize someone’s behavior diminishes experiences of those the Nazis hurt. It also sends a message that a person’s behavior isn’t all that bad, because it’s not as bad as Hitler behaved.
The law’s creator, Mike Godwin, won’t interpret or otherwise control its application. Even so, he’s frequently asked to decide when it’s OK to call someone a Nazi. (He declines.)
In recent years, Godwin told The Washington Post there are some contemporary examples of Nazis. He won’t budge on “Hitler.”
Karris Golden is a Gazette editorial fellow. Comments: email@example.com