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.
Imagine this: You’re the driver of a trolley filled with people. Up ahead you see five people chained to the tracks, unable to move. If you pull a lever, you can change the direction of the trolley towards a different track, but in doing so you’ll kill a bystander who does not have time to step out of the trolley’s way. What do you do: kill one person or five?
When you phrase the question that way, it seems obvious that five saved lives are better than one. But the Devil’s in the details, as they say, and the phrasing of a question says a lot more than the ‘correctness’ of an answer.
No wonder medical school’s infamously ask aspiring physicians questions like these. Saving lives can be quite literal in many medical situations, and (fortunately or unfortunately — depending on who you ask) the residing physician assumes responsibility for the outcome of a patient’s recovery. So much so, that many even compare physicians to ‘gatekeepers’ who decide a patient’s fate as if it’s a binary choice as simple as opening or closing a door. It is easy to see why a relationship between medicine and ethics has to exist, but harder, it seems, to define that relationship.
As anyone in the Department of Religious Studies at The University of Alabama will tell you — making the familiar strange and the strange familiar is one of the best ways to kickstart critical thinking. To give meaning to an example that seems otherwise meaningless sheds light on the ways that words seem to grant authority to social agents. So let’s give it a whirl:
Consider an example that should be very familiar: your body. That sack of flesh and blood that magically works together to make you, you. As Bill Bryson more elegantly puts it, “We pass our existence within this warm wobble of flesh and yet take it almost entirely for granted” (4). I stumbled on Bryson’s book The Bodywhile browsings the shelves at Barnes and Noble — though I certainly had no need to lengthen my reading list. More often than not, my book-buying to book-reading ratio favors the first, but miraculously I actually made time to open this new read. As I made my way through Bryson’s synopsis of the human body and its history of discovery, I often stopped to highlight — not the fun facts I could spew at parties, but the sentences that acknowledged the contingency of our knowledge. Though it seems we have got our bodily functions sorted out, it turns out that the body is not so easily described, defined, or categorized.