This post may seem out of step with this site’s “wilderness” or “environmental” character. But it’s a post urging more responsible behavior in the sphere of language, especially on the internet, where rhetorical global climate change seems to be raising the temperature of social media sites to the level of frog-boiling. To my mind, the quality of a language environment and the condition of the natural world connect intimately. Successful changes in environmental policy result from carefully designed language that takes into account past, present, and future well being. Conversely, poor behavior toward the physical world only succeeds through unsustainable reasoning and often bullying rhetoric–that is, it forces itself on its audience, because it can’t otherwise connect with them. So here we go.
The title of this post comes from the novel 2666 by Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño. The full quote is, “Metaphors are our way of losing ourselves in semblances or treading water in a sea of seeming.” It’s a complex metaphor that…well, kinda expresses something a lot of us do when, in conversation, we plunge into the fluid realm of metaphor–especially in our online conversations, where anonymity and the here/not-here nature of virtual presence make many of us bold.
But metaphors. Metaphors are great, right? And all-purpose. A clever metaphor can carry the battle in an argument, thus proving the supremacy of razor wit over club-tongued lunacy. The winner takes home the Truth Booty, cuz, you know, booty is truth, truth booty. Agreed?
Nor can a metaphor explain a phenomenon or construct or test theories with anywhere near the articulacy of science. Describing or depicting the Earth as a dollop of ice cream poised atop a cone and melting in the heat (like the World Wildlife Federation poster to the right) doesn’t offer as meaningful a depiction of climate change as it might hope, doesn’t pose a credible argument for why people should alter their behavior to avoid the dangers of climate change, or even offer a convincing argument that climate change exists. Metaphor plays other critical roles in human cognitive development, and it really makes a good story more engaging. Without metaphor, poetry becomes prosaic. Metaphor can also stimulate inspiration and “seeing better”, as Charles Taylor puts it in The Language Animal.
But when it comes to working through sticking points in social problems? At best, it can only act in a supporting role. At worst, it opens the door to name-calling, also known as ad hominem and straw man fallacies, or it soaps the surfaces of slippery-slopes. As far as making a breakthrough point goes, calling an internet foe “worse than Hitler” (it’s a metaphor, not likely anywhere close to fact) in order to gain the upper hand in an argument is really no more convincing than calling that person “a nah nee poo-poo pants”. One way you will know that your internet foe is not like Hitler or any other historical arch villain is if you wake up in the morning, in your own and still alive. And saying (for example) that a “socialist tidal wave” is coming, that, should it “seize power…take over the House and the Senate, and God forbid they get the White House again, our American freedoms could be lost and our country will be changed forever” is definitely a camel’s nose argument that does not bother to establish the presence of an actual camel.
It’s a problem because a metaphor is by nature (try not to be shocked) an argument, one that doesn’t state all its assumptions, leaving key assumptions implicit. Implicit assumptions are sometimes called “hidden assumptions” or “unstated assumptions”.
Take, for example, Groucho Marx’s line,
A hospital bed is a parked taxi with the meter running
Obviously, a hospital bed isn’t literally a taxi; the bed and the taxi are two unlike objects pulled into a surprising comparison to make a point, which is that being in a hospital bed is expensive business–as expensive (at least) as sitting in a taxi going nowhere with its mechanism for computing charges ticking away. This metaphor happens to be a joke, which means it’s packed tightly with surprise.
The whole argument is open to interpretation, but it could go something like this:
If two seemingly unlike things can be shown to have characteristics in common, then they may be said to be comparable to each other.
A hospital bed doesn’t move.
A parked taxi don’t move.
[Sitting in] a parked taxi with the meter running is expensive.
[Sitting parked in] a hospital bed, presumably in a hospital, is expensive, because hospital billing results in mounting expense.
A hospital bed and a parked taxi don’t move, and sitting in a hospital bed and sitting in a parked taxi with its meter running are both expensive.
A hospital bed and a parked taxi with its meter running have characteristics in common.
Therefore they are like each other.
If two things are not identical to each other but can be shown to produce equivalent results, they may be considered virtually identical.
[Sitting in] a hospital bed is expensive.
[Sitting in] a parked taxi with the meter running is expensive.
A parked taxi with its meter running and a hospital bed are not identical to each other but produce equivalent results.
So they may be considered virtually identical.
Ergo, a hospital bed is a parked taxi with the meter running.
I took some liberties in adding “sitting in” and “sitting parked in” (notice the metaphor in this second one) but not as many liberties as I wanted to, and I left out some steps. And you may argue with the accuracy of my implicit assumptions. But the implicits are tuned tightly enough and I produced just enough supporting evidence to strengthen the argument. Er joke. Which this moderate amount of analysis has watered down, and thus the surprise has been ruined.
But zoom in on the implicit assumptions: two general principles, in this case marked out as if-then clauses. As an instructor of students wrestling with writing classical arguments, I can testify that it’s in the implicit assumptions that most arguments go wrong. A bad metaphor is a bad argument because either its implicit assumptions are fallacious or the evidence provided does not, perhaps cannot, prove the implicit assumptions. Inversely, a good metaphor, like Groucho’s, has qualities of a well-constructed argument, so well-constructed that at the punchline the hearer’s mind unpacks the implicit assumptions at lightning speed. But even a well turned out metaphor ought not try to carry the weight of factual evidence or cinch down the q.e.d. moment. Jokes, though? You laugh, thus proving them funny.
In the following excerpt from Enlightenment Now, Pinker doesn’t address what makes a metaphor good or bad (and he cracks no good jokes), but he does speak to the problem of pushing forward fact-contrary metaphors as stand-ins for reasoning. This troublesome behavior especially applies to comparisons that are not defensible or effective, or are effective only at face value. They include metaphors that attempt to usurp the leading role of evidence in a discussion–a role which rightly belongs to proportionality, or statistical analysis grounded in good reasoning. He says:
As wonderful as metaphor is as a rhetorical devise, it is a poor way to assess the state of humanity. Moral reasoning requires proportionality. It may be upsetting when someone says mean things on Twitter, but it is not the same as the slave trader or the Holocaust. It also requires distinguishing rhetoric from reality. Marching into a rape crisis center and demanding to know what they have done about the rape of the environment does nothing for rape victims and nothing for the environment. Finally, improving the world requires an understanding of cause and effect. Though primitive moral intuitions tend to lump bad things together and find a villain to blame them on, there is no coherent phenomenon of “bad things” that we can seek to understand and eliminate. (Entropy and evolution will generate them in profusion.) War, crime, pollution, poverty, disease, and incivility are evils that may have little in common [and therefore cannot be connected through illicit and emotionally heightening use of metaphor], and if we want to reduce them, we can’t play word games that make it impossible even to discuss them individually.
Metaphor “is a poor way to assess the state of humanity”, and “we can’t play word games that make…impossible [discussing “bad things”] individually”. Like sitting parked in a hospital bed and a parked taxi, treading water in a sea of seeming–seeming clever, seeming right, seeming victorious–doesn’t take you anywhere and can drain resources, or worse, muddy the waters. Avoid doing it. Metaphoring your foe isn’t creative or sustainable language–sustainable in the sense of providing support through offering something needed, of creating possibilities for them, or of helping them create them for themselves.
Unless, of course, the metaphor works the gears of a good joke that manages, like the taxi-hospital bed, to assess the state of humanity in a brilliant flash of connection. Then, folks, you’ve not only got a joke–you might even have satire.