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No one knows what the word compare means anymore.

You see it all the time when some person who dares to speak his mind is put in the media stocks for comparing one thing to another. The interviewer tilts her head in, challenging her guest: Senator- are you really comparing the unemployed to suckerfish? The question alone is indictment enough, and the senator, instead of explaining, backpedals. It’s disturbing, and it’s out of control– the word compare now means to state that two things are the same. 

I remember when it wasn’t so. Comparing was to note the differences and similarities between two things. That’s it. One might conclude that the two things are very similar – or very different. By the archaic definition, one could safely compare the work of Terrence Malick with the work of Tyler Perry, and conclude that while Malick’s films are more visually arresting and serious, Perry’s films boast more gun-packing grandmothers. This is a comparison. By comparing the two, no one is suggesting that Tree of Life and Diary of a Mad Black Woman are the same.

You can compare apples to oranges (crunchier, tastier skin), Hostel to Ice Age (more blood, more breasts), or Axl Rose to Michael Stipe (more tattoos, fewer Grammys). You can compare anything to anything and not be a crackpot, as long as your conclusion is sane. But that there should be – must bea conclusion is something the world seems to have forgotten, as we’ve been browbeaten into inferring sameness from the mere act of comparing.

Sarah Palin Compares Federal Debt to Slavery. This damning headline came from The Huffington Post, so of course it is meant to shock us and leave us shaking our heads over the obtuse former governor. We readers, many of whom will never actually read the article, are given impression that Palin is racist and out of touch. Naturally, the outrage spotlight shone on the politician for a brief moment, headlines like the one above ricocheted around the internet, and heads were shaken in disgust. The truth is that Palin didn’t just compare debt to slavery, she likened the two.

Was her analogy apt? That’s beside the point. The headline is technically true; Palin did compare debt to slavery- and found similarities. But the headline is written as if her conclusion were implicit. Maybe the media doesn’t think we know the words, and shame on use for giving that impression. But shame on them for dumbing it down for us.

This is why we can’t have nice things: we mix our words up like a careless kid with a watercolor palette. Now all we have is brown.

Here are a few of compare’s more vibrant cousins, in hypothetical but not totally implausible examples:

Cruz Likens Obama to Hitler

         “They were both born in Kenya,” explains senator.

Liken implies similarity. We're not shocked when the line that follows supports that assertion of similarity, because we have been primed for it.  

Cruz Equates Obama with Hitler         

            “Hitler and Obama are the same person,” claims Cruz.

Equates leaves little room for interpretation; we know what to expect with the next line. If any one of these words tells the whole story, it's equates.

Cruz Compares Obama to Hitler

            “Hitler was much, much worse- not sure why I brought it up,” concludes senator.

Noncommittal compares – the milquetoast of the bunch – only tells us that two things were put side-by-side for contrast. Compares leaves us hanging; the upshot could be anything.

Pelosi Compares Obama Order to Emancipation Proclamation. LePage Compares IRS to Gestapo. These headlines are tossed out like bones, and we’re meant to froth over them without looking up. The meaning of the word is a casualty. Even more disheartening is the squelching effect its sensational misuse can have on actual understanding.

What Sarah Palin said on the subject of our foreign debt, was this: When that note comes due – and this isn’t racist – but it’s going to be like slavery when that note is due. We are going to be beholden to a foreign master.

Note how Palin anticipated the furor. No one cares whether Palin’s analogy was valid once it’s put to them in shrill terms and large font- they just know she’s racist, and that’s that.

We barely have time to even read the headlines, so I know better than to hope, against mounds of evidence to the contrary, that the discourse is on an upward trajectory. But the words! Won't somebody think of the words!? I suppose we asked to be talked to like this, so they can abuse us all they want. But please- don't misuse the words.


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