Part 4: Chapter 23
Explaining a Subject Through Comparison and Contrast
Once you provide enough background information for your specific audience, you can further explain your subject through comparison and contrast with others that relate to it. For instance, to lend validity to the feminist perspective on The Wizard of Oz, you might compare the film to others of the same period that also show powerful women in a negative light.
Consider, for instance, how the evil queen in Walt Disney’s 1937 film Snow White and the Seven Dwarves uses her magic to achieve her desires, while Snow White, the ideal of femininity, simply waits for a man to come along and rescue her (Walt Disney Productions, 1937).
You could also underscore how a subject is influenced by cultural attitudes through contrast. For example, if you wanted to explain why a show like South Park or Family Guy has particular appeal to young people today, you might contrast these shows with coming of age television series from other periods. For instance, you could contrast an episode of South Park with an episode of Leave it to Beaver, an iconic series from the 1950s. Though the main characters, Beaver and Wally Cleaver, often get into trouble, it is never anything like the kind that Eric Cartman gets into, and, unlike Cartman, who is spoiled by his single mother, the Cleaver kids are always able to talk out their difficulties with their father who helps them to learn from their mistakes at the end of each episode. Again, the conclusions you draw from this contrast could vary. You might assert that this relationship reveals the necessity of a strong father figure to keep children in check, you might suggest that the tightly controlled patriarchal family structure of the 1950s inspired rebellion and ridicule in the decades that followed, or you might come to conclusion somewhere in between these two extremes.
Along these lines, you might also consider explaining your subject by contrasting it with how it could have been different by calling your reader’s attention to the details that were deliberately omitted. For instance, you might analyze an advertisement by revealing what it doesn’t show about the product. Advertisements for fast food restaurants usually show families sitting together, relaxed, and having a good time, but they never show how people usually eat at these places, quickly and alone. And these ads certainly do not reveal the negative effects that eating too much fast food can have on the body, such as heart disease or obesity. Similarly, you can learn about how people feel about something or someone not only by the terms they use but also by the ones they refuse to use. For instance, if the first time you say “I love you” to your significant other only garners the response “thank you,” you might begin to suspect that your feelings run more deeply than those of your partner.
Explaining a Subject Through Personal Values and Experiences
As discussed in Chapter 19, the process through which we discover meaning takes place in the interaction between the subject and the viewer/reader/listener. So to fully explain how and why you came up with your assertions, you should also consider how your experiences, your values, even your mood at the moment of encounter can shed light on how you see your subject. As the above examples indicate, you might begin by considering how your surrounding culture influences your response. For instance, Thomas de Zengotita argues that Americans have become so used to media constructions of reality that they become bored with the real world that is unmitigated by it. To illustrate, he points out that if you were to see wolves in the wild, you might at first be fascinated, but then will quickly lose interest because the sight cannot measure up to the ones that you are used to seeing in movies and on television:
And you will quickly lose interest if that ‘wolf’ doesn’t do anything. The kids will start squirming in, like, five minutes; you’ll probably need to pretend you’re not getting bored for a while longer. But if that little smudge of canine out there in the distance continues to just loll around in the tall grass, and you don’t have a powerful tripod-supported telelens gizmo to play with, you will get bored. You will begin to appreciate how much technology and editing goes into making those nature shows.
de Zengotita, Thomas. “The Numbing of the American Mind.” Harpers. April 2002, 37
But we need to be careful here. One reason many teachers do not allow students to use the word “I” is that they often overuse it. If every sentence began with the phrase “I see it this way because” the essay would soon become monotonous and repetitive. Most of the time, you do not need to use first person point of view (or similar phrases like “in my opinion”) because it is implied that as the writer you are expressing your point of view. This writing rule is often utilized for early college writing, and is in place to help students learn about the rule before they can effectively break the rule. There are times when using “I” will make your writing clearer, more accurate, and more meaningful than constructions that begin with generic subjects like “the reader,” “the viewer” or “one.” These terms can make it tempting to not justify our perspectives, because they can give the impression that all people see a subject in the same way; this simply isn’t true, as evidenced by the fact that we can use these terms to make contradictory assertions:
“the reader sees the poem as about the renewal and energy the life force brings to both people and nature”; “the reader views the poem as about the destructive consequences of time.”
Think of how much more accurate, meaningful, and clear it is for me to write:
“when I was younger I understood the poem to be about the mystery and power that creates life in people and nature, but now (having just turned fifty) I see it as revealing the inevitable decay of both.”
Those teachers who tell their students to never use “I” expect them to seem like objective and indifferent scholars. Yet according to Joan Didion, one of the most prolific and respected essayists of our time, the nature of writing is never like this:
In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its aggressiveness all you want with veils of subordinate clauses and qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.
Didion, Joan. “Why I Write.” New York Times Magazine 5 Dec. 1976
Michel de Montaigne, the man credited with inventing the essay form, would clearly agree with Didion’s assessment because he frequently used the personal pronoun to acknowledge the subjective nature of his perspectives. Consider this excerpt from Of Idleness:
“Lately when I returned to my home,…it seemed to me that I could do my mind no greater favor than to let it entertain itself in full idleness and stay and settle in itself, which I hoped it might do more easily now, having become weightier and riper with time. “
Montaigne, Michael de. Of Idleness Montaigne’s Essays and Selected Writing. Trans. Donald M Frame. New York: Saint Martin’s Press, 1963
Imagine if Montaigne had been expected to write these lines without the use of the personal pronoun: “when one returns to one’s home, it seems to a person….” So don’t be afraid of including that vertical line when it adds accuracy, clarity, or depth to your explanations.
Whether you choose to explain your subject through background information, cultural influence, personal experience, comparison and contrast with other subjects, or some combination of these, you should never ignore this area of analysis. Your interpretation of a subject may seem apparent to you, but your reader may see it differently and not understand how you derived your perspectives. By providing explanations, you show that you took the time to pay careful attention.
Though not everyone will agree with your point of view, most will at least respect it if they see that you derived your assertions from a close consideration of the subject and did not just rely on a gut reaction based on a brief glance. Ultimately you will want to discuss your essay’s point of view with your instructor. Different genres and essay goals will dictate the need for a specific point of view.