This week, George W. Bush said workers should be allowed to invest part of their Social Security money in the stock market. Then Al Gore said Bush’s proposal was too risky. Then Bush called Gore’s complaint hypocritical because Gore had suggested last year that the stock market was the most profitable place for the government to put money before transferring it to Social Security. Finally, Gore spokesman Chris Lehane straightened it all out. Bush, he explained, was comparing “apples and oranges.”
Well, not exactly. Bush didn’t literally compare apples to oranges. What he compared were: 1) Gore’s comments about a Bush scheme to put some Social Security money in the stock market; and 2) Gore’s comments about a Clinton-Gore scheme to put some Social Security money in the stock market. So why did Lehane talk instead about apples and oranges? Because the differences between the Bush scheme and the Clinton-Gore scheme are subtle, whereas the differences between apples and oranges are obvious. By replacing the two messy Social Security plans with the simple image of apples and oranges, Lehane made the difference between the plans seem clearer than it is.
Pause for a moment to appreciate the irony. The reason why people invoke “apples and oranges” to argue that two things differ crucially from each other is that the contrast between those two things—whatever they are—differs crucially (i.e., in degree of simplicity and clarity) from the contrast between apples and oranges. “Apples and oranges,” a phrase designed to expose analogy as a rhetorical trick, actually exemplifies that trick. Your opponent compares two things. You say the comparison is bogus because they’re two different kinds of things. To prove the point, you compare both things to fruit.
Two weeks ago, the apple was on the other foot. Gore portrayed Bush’s criminal justice system as a revolving door, suggesting that roughly one of every two inmates released in Texas ended up back in jail within three years. Tony Fabelo, the head of Texas’ Criminal Justice Policy Council, tried to explain to the media how Gore was distorting the data. Essentially, said Fabelo, Gore was “comparing apples to oranges.” But Gore’s oversimplification of the data had nothing to do with comparisons. “Apples and oranges” was just a simpler way of accusing Gore of oversimplification.
The problem with “apples and oranges” is that it obscures the question of which kinds of differences render a comparison invalid and why. In the current Newsweek, for example, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer says the U.S. Department of Justice is wrong to infer that a breakup of Microsoft would be good for consumers just because the breakup of AT&T was good for consumers. Ballmer writes that “the two situations are apples and oranges. AT&T was a government-regulated monopoly that agreed to a voluntary breakup in order to end decades of heavy government regulation. Microsoft and the broader personal-computer industry have created tremendous value for consumers without any government regulation.” But why does it matter that AT&T had been regulated or that its breakup was “voluntary”? Far from explaining why these differences are relevant, “apples and oranges” only confuses the picture.
Political spin doctors often throw apples and oranges at the press to cover their retreats and evasions. At a White House briefing earlier this month, a reporter asked Press Secretary Joe Lockhart why President Clinton was proposing a different level of privacy protection for medical records than for other personal information about consumers. “They’re apples and oranges,” Lockhart answered. “What the president talked about yesterday was a common-sense approach to giving people the tools they need to protect their privacy.” The reporter persisted, “But why do you say it’s apples and oranges?” Lockhart replied: “Because I think these are two different issues. … We don’t take out the privacy cookie cutter. … Each problem is approached as looking at the elements that are unique to it.” Unable to explain why the two issues should be treated differently, Lockhart hurled metaphors. If apples and oranges fail to deflect your questioners, throw in a cookie cutter.
Perhaps the farcical embellishment and overuse of these anti-analogy analogies will eventually reduce them to absurdity. Two weeks ago on Larry King Live, Dr. Laura Schlessinger accused an adversary of “mixing apples, oranges, and turnips.” Meanwhile, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher tried to explain to a roomful of journalists why the department’s loss of two laptop computers shouldn’t be compared to its previous loss of a laptop computer loaded with classified information. “We are talking about apples and oranges,” said Boucher. “No, no, no,” an intrepid reporter shot back. “We are talking about laptops.” As the room erupted in laughter, Boucher reloaded his metaphor gun. “We are talking,” he proposed, about “a laptop of a different color.”