Thursday, October 29, 2015

on the dangers of metaphor

Former U. S. Congressmember Barney Frank takes on metaphor:
As a civil libertarian, I would make few exceptions to the right to free speech. But I admit I’d be tempted to ban the use of metaphors in the discussion of public policy. Metaphors more often distort discussion than improve it. For example, countries are not dominoes; they do not lurch into their neighbors and knock them over if their regime changes. The Reaganite claim that a “rising tide lifts all boats” was also very harmful. People are not boats, and increases in GDP are not a tide that rises uniformly. To fight the metaphor on its own simplistic terms, if you are too poor to afford a boat and are standing on tiptoes in the water, the rising tide can go up your nose. Or, in real terms, the fact that some — even most — people become wealthier may have adverse consequences on those who do not share in the prosperity. In the case of housing, the economic advances that made downtowns more desirable places to live threatened to submerge the existing residents, not float them. It took the government to ensure that good news in the private sector — sharply improved property values — did not become very bad news for low-income people who would have been driven out of their homes.

Metaphors are dangerous. They seem to be basic to the way people think. Yet, as Barney Frank illustrates, metaphors “often distort” reality.

Fighting back against a metaphor can be tricky. You don’t want to do what people do reflexively — you don’t want to argue on the metaphor’s own terms. Barney Frank knows this but can’t help himself. He is clever enough to be able to turn the “rising tide” metaphor from one of benign floating to the danger of drowning. This sort of turn can win an argument. But if you find yourself arguing over metaphor, you are leaving reality behind. That’s not good. And I say that as a poet. Who loves metaphor, especially outrageous metaphor.

“Countries are not dominoes.” We are not talking about boats and tides; we are talking about people and whether they have enough to survive.

It is neither possible (nor desirable) to ban metaphor. But watch out for it, and when you see it, be ready to cut it off at the knees.

source: Frank: a life in politics from the Great Society to same-sex marriage by Barney Frank
2015. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York

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