When Good Similes Go Bad

02/01/2011 05:42 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

One of my pet peeves when it comes to public discourse is the seeming inability of otherwise smart people to follow similes and analogies and I can't think of a better example of this phenomenon than the recent case of Congressman Steve Cohen. Cohen didn't say Republicans were Nazis, he was merely stating that in his opinion the communication style employed by the GOP was like the one employed by Hitler's propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels.

Here's how Wikipedia defines a simile:

"A figure of speech that indirectly compares two different things by employing the words 'like,' 'as,' or 'than.' Even though similes and metaphors are both forms of comparison, similes indirectly compare the two ideas and allow them to remain distinct in spite of their similarities."

How did we get to a place in our public discourse where we can't debate ideas using similes and metaphors without people screaming that they're being compared substantively? I think it's rooted in the culture of victimhood we find ourself in, in which a debate can be won by default by one side claiming victim status instead of actually joining the debate and offering a response.

Telling someone with a cropped mustache "you're mustache is like Hitler's," is not the same thing as comparing that person substantively to the Fuhrer, and shouldn't be met with shrieks of: "he's comparing me to Hitler!"

I haven't looked into the matter enough to know whether Congressman Cohen's observations about GOP communication techniques are correct or not, but I know one thing: it's not Congressman Cohen who owes us an apology, but rather those who are unable or unwilling to engage in a substantive and reasoned debate that includes the use of similes and analogies.