This essay is part of a mini symposium on the opportunities and challenges educators face in the wake of a year-and-a-half of COVID. You can view all the contributions here.
Sterling, KS. As a writing and literature professor, perhaps nothing has become clearer to me in the age of COVID than the truth of Wendell Berry’s argument in “Standing by Words” (1979) that “the disintegration of communities and the disintegration of persons” is related to “the disintegration of language.”
Damon Linker recently described this situation in an article for The Week in which he observes that “the same ideological and cultural polarization that prevailed before the pandemic” has not only continued but heightened in the age of COVID. He reaches the disheartening conclusion that “there’s just too much political and psychological benefit to blaming ideological opponents for our struggles and suffering,” so “most people will find the temptation too alluring to resist.” Indeed, public discourse surrounding COVID, particularly in online communities, seems to be dominated by people who lack impulse control and who routinely stoop to unethical and irresponsible uses of language to blame others for the world’s problems.
When I take in the barrage of rhetoric surrounding COVID, I think primarily about my students. They are watching and learning. They are observing combative and vitriolic styles of communication and internalizing them as options for their own uses of language, whether as responses to people with whom they disagree or as acceptable modes of persuasion in general. And the most conspicuous options being modeled for them are not only inadequate as conduits for conversation but deeply harmful to individuals and communities.
While I wish there was a way to protect young people from such harmful styles of communication, I find it ironic that they are likely to inhabit the very digital spaces where its worst version appears: social media. Given this reality, I view education in the age of COVID as an opportunity for teachers and students to investigate the role of language in an intense real-world situation and to grasp how irresponsible language participates in the dissolution of people’s goodwill toward one another. In other words, my students and I have had no shortage of examples at hand to drive home just how powerful language is—how it can be used to incite vitriol, to put oneself in a position of superiority over others, to manipulate one’s opponents, to shame others, and to pervert logic.
Among the raucous language used to justify or condemn COVID precautions (such as masks, vaccines, and lockdowns) on social media, I have found that studying the analogy as a rhetorical device is a fruitful endeavor for deepening my own understanding—and my students’—of the uses and misuses of language in the act of persuasion. An analogy is a kind of comparison focused on finding similarity between two things, usually for the purpose of demonstrating or arguing a point. A simile, which uses “like” or “as,” is a direct analogy, and a metaphor is one which is implied. In argument, claims relying on analogy often appear through historical or figurative examples. Analogies are consequently incredibly useful and widespread. The analogy that I have found most powerful in my work with students is the comparison of intellectual development to physical strength. Because I teach many athletes, I tell my students that they need to practice writing like they practice their sport if they want to improve. One of my favorite analogies from Wendell Berry is in the documentary Look & See, wherein he quotes a friend who said that he “kept the weeds out of his crops for the same reason that he washed his face.”
Edward P.J. Corbett, author of Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, asserts that “the tendency to compare things is as natural for people as the tendency to define things,” and he speculates that people have long been drawn to comparison because “they discovered that the familiar often helped them to understand the unfamiliar, and they learned that by measuring one thing against another they could discriminate the ‘more’ from the ‘less.’” As Corbett demonstrates, the analogy is not only natural but often assists one in the process of understanding and measuring “the unfamiliar.” His observation has proven true in my own use of the analogy likening athletic and intellectual ability, which I have used for several years to persuade my students to spend more time practicing their writing.
However, the analogy also occupies a place in a rhetoricians’ list of logical fallacies, where it is known as the faulty analogy, the analogical fallacy, and the wrongful comparison, among other names. When an analogy gets labeled as a fallacy, it is usually because it is considered overextended: the two things being compared have no business being discussed alongside one another. Whether an analogy deserves designation as faulty is treacherous terrain, given the nature of the rhetorical device. As Corbett points out, an analogy in argument—and not necessarily one labeled faulty or wrongful—“does not really prove anything, but it can have persuasive value.”
After studying analogies employed in public discourse to support or lambast COVID precautions, I believe that it is the inability of this rhetorical device to actually prove anything, coupled with its powerful persuasive value, that results in its routine abuse. Although not a nefarious tool by nature, it is nevertheless the impetus for some of the most manipulative arguments recently in circulation on social media.
For example, politicians who mandate mask-wearing and lockdowns are compared unfairly to dictators and communist leaders—people whose contexts, policies, and modes of enforcement greatly differ from the current leaders being criticized. On the other hand, an argument in favor of lockdowns compared this precaution to blackout regulations during World War II in Britain, suggesting likeness between the danger of a bomb and an airborne virus. An image of an incendiary t-shirt has been disseminated which attempts to persuade people to wear masks with the question, “If you don’t need a mask because God will protect you, why do you need a gun?” This argument draws attention to the implied hypocrisy of a gun-owner, making analogous the dangers of COVID to whatever threats prompt a person to obtain a firearm.
While there is likely to be disagreement as to whether each of the three analogies I’ve referenced are flawed enough to be labeled faulty, what I am interested in is how they manipulate the person they aim to persuade. The comparison between lockdowns and blackouts, and the politician and a dictator, are analogies that use fear tactics to shame the person on the opposing side. If you don’t want to be a communist, or support a communist, you’ll challenge the mask mandates. If you don’t want to cause figurative bombs to destroy the city, you’ll stay home.
The kind of analogy represented in the t-shirt I mentioned, which compares the protection guns offer from intruders to the protection of masks from a virus, is perhaps the more disturbing category to me and one I have spent a lot of time discussing with students. It strikes me as particularly egregious because it fails to account for, and thereby dismisses, the complexity of a person’s thinking and priorities. What looks like hypocrisy to one person can be explained by the other as a specific order of priorities—that person feels more threatened by the possibility of a trespasser than an airborne virus. That person has prioritized and categorized the issues differently from the person who wants him or her to wear a mask. To the anti-masker, an intruder and a virus ought not to be compared to one another.
In this article, I have no interest in contributing to or supporting arguments about masking, vaccinations, and lockdowns. (For anyone wondering, I received the vaccination earlier this year, and I wear a mask.) Rather, I think the prevalence of analogies during the decisive age of COVID reveals some deeply troubling ways that irresponsible and unethical language is destroying civic life and communal bonds. One of the lasting effects of this social nightmare is that young people—my students—are being taught that manipulation and shaming pass as acceptable modes of argument, as legitimate contributions to civic debate.
In “Standing by Words,” Berry offers several remedies for the simultaneous disintegration of language, community, and persons. The first, that language “must designate its object precisely” might be applied to the communal crisis exacerbated by COVID. Rather than use an analogy to persuade someone to adhere to a lockdown, it is possibly more ethical and responsible at this intense time to describe the reasons for the precaution “precisely,” as Berry says. Precision would entail explaining the patterns of a virus rather than a bomb. It would involve detailing why one disagrees with the actions of a politician without comparing him or her to a communist dictator.
Berry also writes more broadly about being accountable for one’s language. To provide my students with ways they might hold themselves and others accountable, I ask them to rewrite the argument of a manipulative analogy with precise words. I also challenge them to fast from using analogies altogether for a month. When I undertook my own fast from analogies, what I found was that I was indeed tempted to use them to exaggerate my case in emotional situations. Not having this option kept me accountable to using more accurate and descriptive language, which resulted in my conversation partner gaining a better understanding of my position as well as who I am and what I care about. My students reported similar observations.
In a recent study of technology and education, Digital Life Together, a group of researchers found “the ideas of sabbath and fasting recurring” in the strategies offered for stewarding technology. They explain the rationale behind such rituals: “The things set aside may be good in themselves, but the […] practices of sabbath and fasting pause to put them in their place so that they can be enjoyed in proper measure and with freedom from their potential tyranny.” It may therefore be particularly meaningful to people currently pursuing an education to learn from giving up the rhetorical techniques that are easily coopted for manipulative ends. The practice of refraining from these modes of rhetoric and learning new ones promises to equip students with resources for recognizing irresponsible language as well as strategies for overcoming the temptation to abuse language themselves. Fasting from analogies may be a good place to start.