Monday, March 14

Relativity in comparisons: perspective in the past

I've heard this quote about there only being four stories in the world, that we just tell them over and over with new characters in new places... but I never thought it was true. Recently, though, I can't help but think that it must be. At the very least, I have grown tired of media referencing past events without considering that current events have their own legs to stand on. It's frustrating when each new story is merely a comparison to an old one. Two examples in the news right now come to mind: NPR-gate and the Fukushima, Japan reactors = Chernobyl or Three Mile Island.

NPR-gate: If there's a scandal, it becomes Something-gate... a reference to Watergate, the scandal that led to President Nixon's resignation. The name came from the hotel where the wire-tapping scandal was born, not because of some actual gate (a hinged, removable barrier to an enclosure). It's unnerving how every single little scandal that pops up in the news these days becomes a "gate" of some sort... Links in that last sentence go to cry-gate, robo-gate, NPR-gate, and climate-gate (and all it took to find them was a Google News search for "gate scandal").

Is there not some more original way to state that something is scandalous? (For starters, how about calling it scandalous?) What were scandals called before Watergate happened? To what other pariah or sinister deed were they compared? While I'm certain there were scandals reported in the news prior to 1970, it seems we've latched on to the one in which a nation's elected leader voluntarily stepped down. Momentous, yes? A worthy label for each shocking incident thereafter? No. And no matter how you slice it (or write about it), the resignation of NPR's president and CEO is not on the same level as President Nixon's resignation. The story is interesting in its own light for various reasons, but the comparison to Watergate is too simplistic. This story, like others with unwaveringly popular "gate" suffixes, has its own legs and should be allowed to use them without the "gate" crutch.

Fukushima, Japan: And if there's some kind of nuclear problem on the horizon, it's a Chernobyl (Soviet Union, 1980) or a Three Mile Island (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1979). (Even that link above includes a picture of Three Mile Island and a mention of Chernobyl in the headline. The saving grace for that article is a source who declares the past events are "very, very different from Japan's current situation.) Right now, the focus is on Fukushima, Japan. Poor Japan—they suffer the worst earthquake in their country's recorded history, endure a phenomenal tsunami, and manage to keep their nuclear reactors under control despite all that and a rising death toll as search parties canvas the islands, and all the news can do is repeat pictures and memories of other actual disasters.

But it's NOT a disaster (as of the writing of this blog post, 7:20 EST on 3/14/11) and I hope and pray, with the rest of the world, that it doesn't get to that point. I don't deny that there is significant danger involved with a damaged, nonfunctioning or malfunctioning nuclear reactor (let alone several reactors in such bad states). Commercial nuclear power hasn't quite earned its stay in the U.S. yet (though it is used more elsewhere in the world) so there are a lot of critics. There are always critics. But comparing a dangerous situation to past catastrophes is not exactly a boost of confidence. Nor do the comparisons let these life-changing situations stand on their own. Japan's current situation will never be Chernobyl or Three Mile Island. Those places are in other countries; heck, they're completely different continents! The situation is unique, the people handling it are different, the circumstances should be seen for what they are, not compared to something that seems familiar... just for the sake of making it familiar.

I think I just hit a nerve. Maybe that's the reason for the comparisons: they're familiar. We don't tend to like change or new things, as a human race, so we want to compare, to make things familiar, to prove to ourselves that we've seen this before and that we know how it will end (for better or worse) so we can prepare ourselves for that ending. Maybe we just need to tamp down our senses with references and comparisons so that we can get on with our lives instead of being caught up in the tragedies of the world, so much so that we can't think straight because our hearts go out to the Japanese people made homeless by forces of nature, searching for lost loved ones, fighting to keep their country's power sources safe and within reasonable control.

Naturally, everything is relative to everything else, meaning that something is only as good (or bad) as whatever it's being compared to. The beauty of similes and metaphors is that we need them to make sense of abstraction in our lives. What's sad is when they're overused to describe circumstances that would be better described in their own light.

It's like a curve on a grading scale when the is one kid who managed to get 100% on the test and screwed the curve for everyone else.

It's like eating a meal with no flavor and then going for dessert at a new place and declaring it the best dessert you've ever eaten.

It's like seeing the scandals and suffering in the news and sizing up the latest stories in accordance with similar older stories so that the latest feels more reasonable (or, depending on your perspective, blown out of proportion).

Yeah, that's what it's like. Only it's not. Because that is a comparison. Experience it for yourself so it's not a comparison, okay?


  1. I like this one :)
    There are benefits of course to comparisons - they make it familiar so we are more able to relate and understand. But in the circumstances that you bring up, they also belittle, simplify, and strip the situation of its essential differences (I'm thinking mainly of Japan...NPR gate is just dumb.)
    -Bob :)


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