If there’s one silver lining from the pile of bull-honkey that has been the media landscape during COVID-19, it is the resurgence of the television show Community on Netflix. Not only the fact that it’s back, but also that it has managed to grab a top ten Netflix ranking, renews my faith in humanity.
So, in honor of Community’s return to the Big Screen, let’s take a close rhetorical look at one of my favorite moments of the show when Britta describes an analogy for Jeff.
Britta brilliances while Jeff mansplains
Alright, so as usual Jeff is mansplaining to Britta, which full disclosure was a lot more charming when I was a ten years younger. That’s a good sign. Britta isn’t wrong.
The basic structure of an analogy is A is like B because C. Now if that sounds like a metaphor, it kind of is. We’ll talk about differences in a minute. A is like B because C. In this case, A is weddings. B is little girl’s tea parties. Weddings are like little girl’s tea parties because C.
C is antiquated gender roles.
The analogy is technically pretty solid. The issue is that within the analogy, Britta starts crossing streams between A and B and winds up with the last piece, “they’re not drinking tea; they’re drinking antiquated gender norms.” Jeff mocks her for being illogical, but it makes perfect sense.
In rhetoric we call a bad metaphor a catachresis–in some sense all metaphors are bad because anytime you make comparisons you oversimplify, but when the mixed up metaphor really sticks out, it’s a proper catachresis.Tweet
Britta’s analogy is just fine; it’s just messy, which is also why it’s cool and works well for an offbeat, witty comedy like Community.
Britta’s definition of an analogy–a thought with another thought’s hat on–is even better. Because that’s exactly what an analogy is and she uses more embedded metaphors to make the point even more engaging and intriguing, if not necessarily more clear.
But who watches Community for clear, efficient communication right? Who does ANYTHING, really, for that reason? Except maybe, like, email.
Fundamentally, an analogy is a comparison of two thing–two thoughts–that aren’t already connected in our minds. Essentially, you have two things; one is something that you know about and the other is something you don’t know about.
The thing that you don’t know–in this case, the weddings–are usually the topic; they’re the thing you’re trying to get someone to get. And to help people understand your topic– to understand your perspective on the topic more accurately– you use an analogy or a metaphor so you can compare the thing people don’t know to the thing that they do.
Jonathan is a tiger–basic analogy structure
So let’s take the basic metaphor/analogy: Jonathan is a tiger.
Jonathan is the unknown idea. I don’t know who Jonathan is, I just found this example on the Internet. Jonathan is the thing we don’t know about but we know about. Tigers or at least we think we do. If we say Jonathan is a tiger or
Jonathan is like a tiger; what does that mean? Does that mean he’s furry and has stripes and claws? Does it mean he naps a lot? Does it mean he’s a carnivore?
We don’t know.
And this is the difference between a metaphor and an analogy. In a metaphor the idea is already so well circulated that you know the difference. When I say my roommate is like a pig, you know what means she’s messy because we circulate that all the timeTweet
However, if I say my roommate they’re like a dump truck it’s like okay so they’re dirty or big? We don’t really get it. That’s how we know we’re in analogy land. Because the “C” or the hat isn’t immediately clear. So you have to give more details to clarify the comparison–hence the synonym extended metaphor.
So, then I give you more details about my roommate–they come home at all hours of the night it’ll be three a.m. and I’m asleep in my bed and all of a sudden crash! and I hear these loud noises and these lights are shining in my window and things are, you know, banging around.
Then you’re like oh okay your roommate is like a dump truck because they’re disruptive.
Then the wheels start to turn
Analogies and metaphors have the same structure; we have the letter A which is the unknown topic. We call that the tenor so like in music the tenor is the bottom part of the music. The tenor in an analogy is the unknown idea; it’s the thing you’re talking about.
Then we have this other idea: tiger or dumptruck or pig whatever and that’s called the vehicle because it literally drives the idea into the speech so you’ve taken one things hat and put it on the other thing
Metaphors work because they are efficient. Analogies work because they require some work. Your audience is working to transfer the idea. As you’re constructing the analogy. They get to participate in what’s happening.Tweet
Of course, analogies come with a downside. One is that analogies aren’t true so they’re easy to rip apart if you’re on the opposing side. But that’s true of everything so I don’t think it’s a good reason to steer away from, especially given that humans are fundamentally analogy-making reasoners. We make sense of things by comparing and contrasting them to our previous understandings.
But they do have a big downside that you can actually control, which is losing the forest for the trees–a metaphor you may or may not understand—getting so focused on the details that you lose the point. That’s what makes Britta’s analogy so good; it’s clever and stylish and has enough details to be fun but not to lose track of the point. Jeff’s mockery is off her creative use of language–not her fundamental reasoning skills.
When you get too dependent on developing the details, you forget the idea– that really ruins the analogy.
Just like Uncle Phill in The Fresh Prince.
Uncle Phil tells bad analogies
What happened? Uncle Phil is trying to talk about a sensitive topic so he brings up “cars”–cars are the known vehicle, not literally, metaphorically. Literally metaphorically.
We know about cars. In some ways this is a metaphoric premise because we are familiar with talking about driving and sex but because the idea being transferred isn’t always the same it still works for a potential analogy–unlike something, like, my roommate is a pig where the idea is ALWAYS “she’s messy.”
The unknown vehicle–the sensitive subject–that Will doesn’t really want to talk about is sex and so they’re gonna use cars to describe what needs to be understood.
They’ll drive “cars” into the conversation, transfer on to sex, the main idea,
But we’re never going to talk about sex.
And this is the key to a really stellar analogy when you’re in “rational” mode like in a Tedx or something; you only describe the known vehicle. You only talk about cars, you don’t talk about sex.
Britta’s analogy is no less rational; it’s just that she mixes together her A and B and makes her C a metaphor. So if you’re using my advice to write standup comedy, then you do it a bit differently.
But none of it is more or less “logical” ; it’s just different ways of constructing the analogy that yield different effects. A catachresis isn’t nonsense; it’s an awkward metaphor and as we’ve seen those can be used to create really tremendous idea generation.
But with Uncle Phil, unlike Britta, the catachresis simply falls apart.
The audience is trying to participate in the speech, trying to follow Phil’s comparison of sex to cars, but Uncle Phil goes awry because instead of
Focusing on the idea that he wants to communicate he starts talking about all this car stuff like cracked blocks and radiators and like who knows.
By then when he says “do you understand what I’m saying?” Will’s like no, because Phil let the details create too many competing ideas. In the beginning his details create ideas like “take it slow and easy”–you think he’s kind of talking about preventing heartbreak or maybe even using protection
Then, later when he starts talking about “crack your radiator” and your block then we don’t kind of know what’s going on–maybe there’s an STI or somebody’s getting pregnant, I don’t know–then it turns out it was about abstinence the whole time.
But none of the details about the car that Uncle Phil presents had anything to do
with abstinence; by the end, the analogy has totally failed because unlike Britta’s complex but still in tact ABC structure, Phil’s is all A (cars and driving) too many Cs (the ideas) and not enough consideration for the B (how cars relate to sex).
Now let’s look at an analogy that works in a more coherent, quote unquote “logical way.”
Obama tells good analogies
The cars analogy was a favorite comparison that Obama used during his 2012 presidential campaign.
This is a textbook analogy. Obama doesn’t talk hardly at all about the economy or fiduciary policy or whatever. He keeps the unknown vehicle really vague but he keeps the known vehicle–him and Biden down digging out the car with and the Republicans up on the hill–really description. The description lets your imagination do some work without stressing you out like Uncle Phil. And Obama’s comedic effect comes from the hilariously specific details of the analogy–slurpee for the win–not running us around in catachrestic circles like Britta.
Strategies for kick ass analogies
Now we can translate Obama’s analogy into a quick “how to write a kick ass analogy,” keeping in mind that most of you are going to be in speaking situations where you want to be more Obama about things. If you’re ever doing standup comedy or just, god forbid. want to interesting and weird and fun, borrow the catachresis moves out of Britta’s guidebook
- You’re gonna need 30 or 45 seconds to do a good analogy
- If your analogy is only 5 seconds or 10 seconds long it’s basically a metaphor. Metaphors are perfectly fine rhetorical strategies but don’t assume it’s gonna do the work that an analogy will do.
- Show don’t tell. Muddy boots and flies not “we worked really hard.” they were up there “give us back the keys” not “here’s how they ruined fiscal policy
- Detailed to the point of absurdity but on track (not the way that Uncle Phil is absurd and off track). Focus on the concrete details, but only the ones that make your point. Notice in Obama’s analogy his point isn’t that the Republicans ruined the economy. If it were just that, then he’d be describing the car all fucked up. Instead he’s describing himself and Biden down in the mud digging this thing out, the Republicans up on the hill all relaxed and whatever, with the slurpees, and then the punchline: you can’t have the keys, which became a popular refrain for Obama’s campaign.
So if A is republicans handling of economy and B is drove car into a ditch what’s C based on the details of obama’s analogy? Irresponsible? Wreckless? Sure. Bad drivers? No that would be literal.
Entitled. The extra sauce in Obama’s analogy is that the republicans’ handling of the economy was entitled. Why? Because Obama knew that an average voter isn’t going to have a strong enough conviction about policy management and economic planning. But they do get how shitty it is to have to fix someone else’s screw up and they keep on screwing up. In fact, responsibility is a conservative value. That’s why the analogy works because it’s got that extra layer of idea magic in the construction.
Trump tells logical and criminally negligent analogies
Now, let’s talk about what is being widely hailed as Trump’s Lysol moment and why that is not the right name for it. So let me set some context. I’m sure you’ve heard the quote but I want you to hear it from me.
We have just spent the last part of the press conference listening to Bill Bryan, the head of the science and technology directorate at the Department of Homeland Security, discussing pending research innovations with potential to help with COVID. And of course at this point science is reaching. There’s no real news happening, there’s no vaccine, and they are giving daily press conferences to give updates when they don’t have updates. So Bryan is talking about research into COVID-19 and sunlight and says that there’s been some evidence to suggest that the virus is susceptible to sunlight. Now, I didn’t look into this but I can imagine we’re not talking about just someone with Coronavirus going out to stand in the sun and being healed. We’re talking about highly controlled lab experiments likely with something that is kind of like sunlight and a version of the virus that is vastly simplified from being inside the body. So already this is certainly too speculative to put in front of the public but I get it–they’ve got nothing and people need them to have something so, whatever, this is just politics at this point. Then Trump gets on the mic after Bryan and says this:
Trump’s Lysol Moment has been called “ridiculous,” “stupid,” “brain damaged,” and a Lysol spokesperson called him a “dangerous moron.”
Only one of those words is accurate and that is the word—wait for it—dangerous.
Trump’s argument is dangerous. It is not moronic. Here’s why.
So you’ve got A, which is sunlight or powerful light. Then you’ve got B, which is a diseased body. Notice Trump never talks about the specifics of diseased bodies–neither really did Bryan. He’s focusing entirely on the act of comparison with a focus on driving A over to B and dropping off the idea.
And what’s the idea?
Disinfecting. Powerful light disinfecting surfaces.
Medically, Trump is wrong. But rhetorically and in the vastly oversimplified world of public science, he’s not wrong. He’s dangerous. His comparison was structurally sound according to the same standards of analogy that we applied to Obama except he used those standards to discuss medical research in highly volatile settings.
Fox News‘ Bret Baier said that Trump “stepped in it,” that his ranting and off-the-cuff pontificating gets him in trouble especially in highly volatile situations. Baier is a Fox News guy so he’s underselling the dangerous piece but his analysis of Trump’s speech is actually more accurate in terms of structure–Trump ran with the analogy of scientific method to the analogy of generic accessibility and as a result got translated a concept like drinking beach alongside a concept like sunshine disinfects. But it wasn’t stupidity, it was fundamental mishandling of analogy.
Where Baier is dead wrong is at the end. Did you notice he’s all, “but people won’t take him seriously ugh err I don’t think.”
And here’s where we find the much better leverage to disassemble Trump than the “he’s stupid” argument.
The “stupid” argument doesn’t work. Because the people who believed Trump and for whom the analogy made sense and went to drink the bleach DO NOT WANT TO BE CALLED STUPID. If you call Trump’s argument stupid, then they’re stupid. It’s not going to work.Tweet
But where the conservatives trap themselves is being like, “oh it won’t cause a problem,” because they’re not taking responsibility for the effects of their language. They get to say whatever they want while they’re up in their newsroom just trying to stay in power and they don’t take responsibility for the consequences, in fact, they don’t even have a sense that there ARE consequences.
Remember? Entitlement. And that’s the lesson we can end on from Obama.
Calling this Trump’s Lysol moment is neither rhetorically astute nor politically helpful. Because stupidity is not an anti-conservative value. On the contrary, conservatives keep the public stupid to keep them voting red; the state-by-state data on education funding proves that.Tweet
But entitlement, not accepting the consequences of your actions, making your mistakes someone else’s problems–those ARE conservative values.
And that’s how you dismantle Trump for a conservative office. Not by repeatedly calling him, and by extension the people he supports, stupid.
And then you get mad on behalf of the people he supports.
Democrats ought to be out visiting victims of bleach poisoning, helping them financially, railing at Trump for reckless endangerment. And sympathizing with these poor people who are so terrified and sad and uneducated and adrift that they saw grabbed at a desperate solution.Tweet
Instead, we are shitting all over them.
Here’s a headline from Joshua Holland from Raw:
Instead of warning idiots not to drink bleach, Democrats should be forcing a national debate about Trump’s fitness for office
That is a complete and total contradiction. You can’t make anyone who supports Trump or is politically disengaged entirely to engage in a conversation about Trump’s fitness for office, which then will inevitably turn into a conversation about Biden’s fitness for office which is where this whole “speech equals mental health” conversation is really going to bite us in the ass, until you stop also calling those same people idiots.
The people who drank bleach aren’t idiots. They’re victims. And until we start treating them that way, they will keep going back to the owner that kicks them repeatedly because at least he gives them a treat once in a while.Tweet