43 Similarities in Differences: Juxtaposition and the Power of Persuasion
To my cousin Julia, the one who always tells me I find the most interesting ways possible to explain things. Though I choose to take explanations to a new level, and though it may be humorous and sometimes incorrect, I can now truthfully say it is through my own beautiful art of persuasion.
Keywords: Comparison, Contrast, Closeness, Adjacency, Opposition
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness,” writes Charles Dickens in the first, and one of the English language’s most famous, opening lines in fiction. These series of parallel juxtapositions establish a framework that informs the reading of A Tale of Two Cities as a whole. Superficially, Dickens uses juxtapositions to announce a series of contrasts that are echoed in the settings of London and Paris, as well as the objectives of the French peasantry and the aristocrats. Differences certainly abound. However, at a subtler level, Dickens also uses these juxtapositions to invite the reader to see some underlying similarities. Paris may have been the site of a bloody revolution, but London was, as the narrator quickly reveals, the scene of considerable violence of its own right. I have noticed similar patterns today. Whether through the contrast between climate change and COVID-19 in the media, between images intentionally chosen to highlight injustice, or between the social media posts we use to present ourselves, juxtaposition serves as a powerful tool of persuasion. Dickens highlights the rhetorical value of juxtaposition as not only an expression of contrast but also a subtle invitation to consider similarities.
Eighteenth-century London and Paris may seem a long way from twenty-first-century Winston-Salem, but I find juxtaposition as relevant a rhetorical technique today as it was in Dickens’s day. Every day, I am exposed to juxtapositions—whether in a film, on a billboard, or in an Instagram post that influence my perspectives. Understanding juxtaposition as a rhetorical strategy is important because it is a tool for persuasion. I argue that although this strategy ostensibly presents dissimilarities of information, juxtaposition is actually a powerful rhetorical vehicle to point to less explicit commonalities.
The juxtaposition of the pandemic to climate change in the news can lead the public to learn new, efficient ways to respond to a global health crisis. For more than a year now, COVID-19 has displaced climate change as the looming existential crisis that permeates almost every news cycle. Despite the massive threat both pose to human health, media outlets often frame them to highlight their differences. This juxtaposition highlights the urgency of COVID-19 in the near term with the more abstract prospect of global warming devastation in the future. News coverage of COVID-19 persuades viewers to focus less on climate change and more on the crisis at hand. Climate change catastrophes ultimately cannot be identified by any diagnostics as arresting as the growing COVID death tolls. The media rarely present the human devastation caused by increased storm intensity and wildfires climate change related but instead portray them as natural disasters.
Additionally, the news juxtaposes COVID-19 with the climate crisis because as society members, we know that there is a pending solution to the former—the vaccine—but no single technological fix to the latter. For most of us, we must wait for scientists to identify the problem and provide us with a recommended action plan, such as striving to reduce, reuse, or recycle. Despite these differences, Shahrir Masri and Bob Taylor’s April 2020 Los Angeles Times opinion piece titled “Commentary: It’s Not a Stretch to Juxtapose the Coronavirus and Climate Change Crises” argues that these two global threats present in our lives today have underlying commonalities in how they affect our daily lives. The authors highlight how the media present the climate crisis as much less concerning to the public because it is not as immediately dangerous and personally invasive as an infectious disease. Yet scientists find significant overlap as people who live in areas with poor air quality from fossil fuel burning are more likely to get COVID-19, and forced species migration can introduce new hosts for the spread of novel coronaviruses. Andrew Gilder and Olivia Rumble’s policy brief for the South African Institute of International Affairs echoes this: though climate change and the global pandemic are two completely different global crises, there are certainly similarities to both the responses we have and the lessons we learn from experiencing them. Despite the contrast between the two existential risks, some of the actions we take to address climate change may reduce the danger of pandemics.
Sometimes, juxtaposition functions more explicitly by persuading audiences to recognize an underlying similarity in a stark contrast. Communicators may use such juxtaposition to persuade audiences to engage in relevant social justice issues, including human rights abuses. In “The Postmodern Turn in Prosuming Images: Juxtaposition, Dialogism, and the Supplement in Contemporary Visual Culture,” Souzana Mizan and Daniel de Mello Ferraz argue that various cultures’ prosuming (producing and consuming) information can create contradictory interpretations across very similar platforms. Specifically, presenting different cultures’ contradictory images together may elicit different meanings for individuals who do not understand or identify with the cultural references. Mizan and Ferraz cite photographer Ugur Gallen’s shocking images. For example, in one image, Gallen presents the body of a starving child with the face of a well-fed one. Gallen achieves this juxtaposition of visually different realities by placing the two tragically dissimilar images next to one another, indexing opposing associations for the viewer. For many audiences in the West, the starving child is the tragic plight elsewhere, but the juxtaposition of the well-fed child’s face brings the plight home. In fact, what is so moving about these juxtaposed images is the shared humanity of the two children.
Digital media has made us prosumers of information as juxtaposing images aids in self-presentation. In my experience, an Instagram feed consists of countless posts by users of numerous different cultures, backgrounds, and ages. As I scroll through the feed, the random juxtaposition between one post of, for example, someone enjoying time with their friends in a city followed by a post of someone alone on a beach may accentuate my feelings about where they are positioned along the extroversion-introversion continuum. However, I find that juxtaposition often seems to be a conscious tool in the presentation of our digital selves. I often find that social media users often follow posts in which they are in a celebratory social situation with posts that feature them in a more serious and responsible fashion. The partier on a Friday night may morph into the volunteer on Saturday morning. This juxtaposition is a rhetorical strategy that points to the underlying commonality: the user’s self. When I see this kind of image, I often cannot help but think of the user as well rounded—a person who is fun to be with yet responsible. Such a person’s Instagram feed would not be able to achieve this without such juxtaposition. What Gallen does in an extreme form, we do in subtle ways in the presuming of our own social media personas: use juxtaposition to point to a core similarity.
Rhetorical juxtapositions are present on an abundance of different platforms and throughout various mediums in our daily lives. I have argued that although rhetorical juxtapositions strongly influence the public’s perspective by presenting dissimilarities of information, juxtaposition is actually a powerful rhetorical vehicle to point to less explicit commonalities. The urgent challenges of climate change may exacerbate the COVID-19 pandemic. Artists may place two dissimilar images together to force viewers to feel empathy toward others whose lives are typically presented as distant from our own. Finally, we may—consciously or unconsciously—juxtapose our social media posts to suggest that we are multifaceted individuals with full and complex lives., in addition to focusing on the underlying similarities they may have.
Dickens, Charles. “A Tale of Two Cities.” Project Gutenberg, 1 Jan. 1994,
Gilder, Andrew, and Olivia Rumble. “Implications of the COVID-19 Pandemic for Global
Climate Change Responses.” Africa Portal, South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA), 31 July 2020, www.africaportal.org/publications/implications-covid-19-pandemic-global-climate-change-responses/.
Masri, Shahrir, and Bob Taylor . “Commentary: It’s Not a Stretch to Juxtapose the
Coronavirus and Climate Change Crises.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 24 Apr. 2020, www.latimes.com/socal/daily-pilot/opinion/story/2020-04-24/commentary-its-not-a-stretch-to-juxtapose-the-coronavirus-and-climate-change-crises. Accessed 11 May 2021.
Mizan, Souzana, and Daniel De Mello Ferraz. “The Postmodern Turn in Prosuming Images:
Juxtaposition, Dialogism, and the Supplement in Contemporary Visual Culture.” Revista X, vol. 14, no. 5, 2019, p. 126–, doi:10.5380/rvx.v14i5.66646.