After reading Aaron Hughes’ chapter on Comparison in Method Today for a graduate seminar, my cohort and I tried to sort out the criteria of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ comparisons in scholarship (and by good or bad we meant more or less useful for our specific purposes). While we disagreed with Hughes’ claim that fluency in a language is a necessity in formulating accurate comparisons, we supported his point on theoretical sophistication, which we understood to mean an acknowledgment of the ‘Z-factor’. This factor, introduced by J. Z. Smith, is described as a way of comparing two things by means of a third term or boundary (i.e. we can compare “x” to “y” only in terms of “z”). Part of what makes this useful to scholarship is the self-reflexivity that acknowledging your ‘z’ brings. This argument breaks apart the implied universalism of the term that seemingly connects the ‘x’ and ‘y’ being compared. For example, if we compare apples to avocados without acknowledging that we consider an avocado to be a fruit (our specific z-factor for this instance) we end up with an implied assumption that the apple and avocado are inherently fruits, without further explanation needed. This sort of logic — the kind that avoids signifying the terms we use — might seem unimportant in comparing fruit, but can have large implications when it comes to identity politics, for example.
This class discussion made me think of an episode of Derry Girls I watched this weekend. The Netflix original series follows a group of Irish teenagers during the Northern Ireland conflict (also known as The Troubles) and this particular episode attempts to reconcile the Z-factor between the two conflicting identity groups at war. The show focuses on the Derry Girls as they grow up in a Catholic all-girls school at a time when the Catholic/Protestant disagreement was charged religiously, but especially politically. In one of the episodes, the girls (and James, who’s considered one of the girls but is male) go to a “Friends Across the Barricade” camp, where they plan to build bridges—not literal bridges but metaphorical, as the main character explains to her mother before departure—with a group of young Protestant men from London.
The first camp activity asks a Catholic student to buddy up with a Protestant before having them gather before a mediator (who happens to be an attractive young priest who appeared in an earlier episode that is equally ironic and hilarious). Father Peter asks the group to brainstorm their similarities and differences in an effort to demonstrate the usually successful argument (or Z factor, you might say) that “despite our differences, we’re all still human”. Unfortunately, no one in the group of teenagers (Protestant or Catholic) is able to come up with any similarities, though they quickly fill a blackboard with differences amongst them. Exacerbated, Father Peter asks the crowd to “pause and think about what’s in here” (pointing to his heart) noting that they all “feel, and love..hope, cry, laugh, and dream”, but no one is buying it.
Father Peter exemplified what my class considered a ‘bad’ comparison as he tried to draw authority from what he considered to be commonly shared human characteristics. Instead, the Derry Girls and their Protestant friends chose not to focus on these larger, seemingly cliche themes and instead listed less-traditional aspects of their identities. They pointed to differences like Protestants being richer, and Catholics having more freckles, or even Catholics being the kind of people who enjoy a “good statue”. The campers saw the specific social problems between themselves so vividly that they could no longer see the abstract ‘human’ in their buddy — or so the story seems to go until they reach a commonality they all agree on: concerned parents.
After one of the characters thinks her Protestant buddy (who is importantly deaf in one ear) is trying to murder her during a repelling incident, parents are called in to help mediate the situation (Father Peter obviously can’t tackle an issue of national, ethnic, and religious identity all on his own). Naturally, the parents care less about the Protestant/Catholic feud and more about their children’s embarrassing behavior. Like most of the episodes, this one ends on a heart-warming note when, amongst parents reprimanding their children, one of the Derry Girls walks up to the empty ‘similarities’ blackboard and writes ‘Parents’ in chalk. Parents then become a universalizing term — the Z-factor — that all the teenagers share and value more than Father Peter’s argument for hopes and dreams.
Though the overarching similarities we agree on seem to unite us, their universality can sometimes do more harm than good. Because love, and hope, and every other ‘universal truth’ Father Peter calls on is defined differently on an individual basis, the differences become more important for the Derry Girls than the human emotions they share. Being reprimanded by a parent becomes a type of social middle ground where the teens could navigate their differences together — the Z-factor they operationalize in order to compare their identities.
In the end, the conflicting identities of each group remained irreconcilable until a relatable commonality was found, but both similarities (those proposed by Father Peter and the widely accepted one proposed by Erin) were still generalizations that relied on shared assumptions. Like the assumption that all the teenagers had parents in the traditional sense, or that all the parents were equally concerned, or even that all the teenagers defined what it meant to be or have a parent in the same way. While the first step of responsible scholarship is the acknowledgement of your Z-factor, it is also interesting to speculate why Erin’s similarity was more successful than Father Peter’s in the end.