Worstest-case Scenarios

On using the comparison as a rhetorical ruse, for public consumption.

The following dialogue could take place between speakers of either sex, but for the sake of gender neutrality and political correctness - and because I know what's good for me in this day and age - let's say that both are women:

A: I've heard you are finally in a relationship. What is he like?

Gilad and Noam Shalit  - Ariel Hermoni, Defense Ministry
Ariel Hermoni / Defense Ministry

B: Compared to what?

Comparing is something we do constantly, more often than not without a second thought. For instance, at this very moment, if you decide to read on, you are doing so (at your peril, be forewarned ) after subconsciously comparing that option with moving on to read some other page in this section. You're still with me? Good. Now I'll have to make it worth your while.

The act of comparing is not even a choice for a human being. After all, what is life if not one long and continuous process of making choices, based on comparing different options? And it is as old as the world itself - from the moment when "God divided the light from the darkness" (Genesis 1:4 ).

In Hebrew, the language of the Creation, the term for "to divide" is lehavdil, based on the same root as hevdel, or "difference," which is something we note and gauge when we compare. After the light was called day, and the darkness, night - "there was evening and there was morning, one day" (Gen. 1:5 ). And "What a Difference a Day Makes," as Dinah Washington sang memorably in 1959.

Which one is better, day or night? And can they really be compared to each other? If you are in a relationship, this may be a moot point, because "Night and day, you are the one," according to Cole Porter. But the fact that any two (or more ) phenomena - things, people, ideas - are seemingly incomparable never deterred anyone from measuring one against the other.

From our very recent past, I've compiled three relevant examples. Our prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, while recently addressing the AIPAC crowd, "compared Iran to Nazi Germany, its nuclear facilities to death camps," as Aluf Benn wrote on these pages on March 6. I will not repeat the arguments against dragging the horrible history of the Jewish people into modern-day politics. Better minds than mine have enjoyed many field days in this realm.

A day later, Barak Ravid quoted a "senior Israeli official" saying that "Netanyahu thinks the damage and casualties from a missile attack on Tel Aviv in response to an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities will be small change compared to the consequences of the Iranian government attaining nuclear capability." As someone who lives in Tel Aviv, I wonder why I should have to look for small change in the pockets of my life because of decisions made by someone who splits his time between abodes in Jerusalem and Caesarea.

Furthermore former minister and Shas MK Shlomo Benizri, upon being released from prison last week after serving two-and-a-half years for receiving bribes, compared his own suffering in captivity to that of soldier Gilad Shalit, who was kept hostage by Hamas for more than five years. "I know this may sound pathetic," Beniziri was quoted as saying. "I understood how he felt and his frustration, and I understood the pain, only I think mine is greater." No pain, no gain, goes the refrain.

The instances quoted here - unlike the comparisons we make in everyday life, some of them subconscious - were public utterances, for general consumption. As such, they are rhetorical ruses.

According to Aristotle, rhetoric is "the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion." Within this realm, comparison is one of 14 progymnasmata - writing exercises prescribed by Greek philosophers (Hermogenes of Tarsus and Aphthonius - 2nd and 4th centuries C.E., respectively ) to teach students basic rhetorical concepts and strategies. After praise and invective, comparison is the 10th rhetorical tactic a speaker (or writer ) can use to examine similarities and/or differences between two people, places, ideas or things, so as to persuade their audiences to prefer one over the other.

When introducing the concept of comparison in his treatise "On Rhetoric," Aristotle writes (Book 1, chapter 7 ): "Since, however, it often happens that people agree that two things are both useful, but do not agree about which is the more so, the next step will be to treat of relative goodness and relative utility."

Oddly enough - or maybe not oddly at all, times being what they are - the three instances quoted above do compare relative evils.

The etymology of "comparison" is Latin compar, from com (with ) + par (equal ). English grammar, unlike that of many other languages (for instance, Hebrew ) is characterized by three "degrees of comparison" of an adjective: the absolute (for instance, easy ); the comparative (easier ); and the superlative (easiest ). Usually the grading is done with suffixes. With some adjectives it is not so easy, however. For instance, in the case of "goodness" (the measure preferred by Aristotle ): good, better, best. Or "badness" or "evil" - the path trod by Messrs. Netanyahu and Benizri: bad, worse, worst. By the way, the Oxford English Dictionary, unlike Merriam-Webster, mentions a fourth degree, "bestest" (with the caveat "in children's use" ), but neither dictionary recognizes "worstest." The Urban Dictionary site does, however, defining the latter as: "the worst of the worst into the worst of the worst. Worse than the worst."

What is particularly worth noting is that both Netanyahu and Benizri - on vastly different scales, of course - essentially compare the bad, their predicament, with the worstest under the relevant circumstances. Such comparisons, commonly called hyperbolical, should be labeled "rhetorical." A "rhetorical question" is "a figure of speech in the form of a question without the expectation of a reply ... A carefully crafted question can, if delivered well, persuade an audience to believe in the position (s ) of the speaker" (Wikipedia ). Thus, a "rhetorical comparison" is a figure of speech that measures a given phenomenon against the worstest of any imaginable kind (cf. the Holocaust ), with the aim of providing carte blanche, without the speaker even saying so, for him to do anything and everything to preempt the seemingly unavoidable.

Which brings us to Godwin's law, a humorous comment by an American lawyer named Mike Godwin in 1990, which has become an Internet adage. It states: "As an [online] discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches" (Wikipedia ). With modern-day readers', viewers' and listeners' attention spans getting shorter with every passing second, the "reductio ad Hitlerum" is introduced into any discussion as soon as the other speaker needs to take a breath.

This can be summed up and exemplified by the following dialogue:

A: What is worse than biting into an apple and finding a worm?

B: What?

A: Finding half a worm. And what is worse than that?

B: What?

A: The Holocaust.