A Lesson in Comparison

Yes, that’s the reaction Symone Sanders had to her fellow CNN commentator’s comments favorably comparing Donald Trump to Martin Luther King.

Didn’t catch this yesterday, or the fall out for much of the rest of the day?

Then watch it here.

We have here a rather nice lesson in comparison — about which a scholar of religion knows a thing or two.

First off, any two things can be judged similar or different.

(I have mass and so do you; but I’m here and you’re not.)

Second, the manner in which things are judged to be similar or different all depends on how they’re put beside each other — that is, the interests and viewpoint of the one doing the comparison determine the results.

(After all, you and I don’t have to be compared in terms of body mass, right? We could instead pick eye color or, maybe, whether we like ice cream.)

So, sure, Jeffrey Lord may be correct: in terms of the role played by strategically using situations of social crisis in “putting the pressure on” legislators, one could claim that there might be some overlap between these two figures. But, as Sanders immediately makes clear, there are so many other ways in which these two figures could be juxtaposed, and then seen as different (radically so, perhaps), as to make one rather curious as to why Lord sees just that similarity as worth our attention.

The point?

It’s not difficult to imagine Roland Barthes’s interest being piqued by this episode, inasmuch as a second, unspoken set of meanings (e.g., the many things that we today associate with Martin Luther King’s legacy, perhaps) could be understood to piggy back on Lord’s initial comparison: for inasmuch as figure A and B are alike in this one way, they might be alike in other ways as well, no?

That’s what Barthes meant by myth — a way that meaning-making works.

So while there’s all sorts of ways to be interested in that exchange yesterday, as well as the fall out that’s still happening in the media (including the series of posts Lord later put out on Twitter, making sure people understood he values King’s efforts and principles as well as the blog post he wrote to explain himself), it stands for me as a useful example in the slippery nature of comparison.

Something the White House spokesperson learned just the other day, but that’s best left for another post.