December 2008

The Problem With Metaphors

by Thomas G. Vincent

Last month I reviewed the book: “The Political Mind”, by George Lakoff. In the book, Lakoff urges progressives to recognize the importance of metaphor in human cognition and reason. His argument in favor of using metaphors and frames to improve communication is practical and empirical. His criticism that 18th century views on cognition do not square with modern discoveries of how the brain actually functions is also valid. It strikes me, however, that there is some danger in relying too heavily on metaphors to understand the world around us.

Take for example, the metaphor that views the nation as a family with the president as the father (or parent). While this analogy fits well with Lakoff’s idea of a “strict father/ nurturing parent” model to describe the differences between the conservative and progressive world views, there are several things that make this analogy inappropriate for our system of government.

First, families are, by and large, not democratic institutions. Parents may put decisions to a family vote, but by law, the final responsibility for all decisions rests on the parents. Despite George W. Bush’s claim to be “The decider”, in a democracy, the power to make laws does not rest in the hands of an executive “father figure” but in the hands of the people through their elected representatives.

Secondly, in a family you don’t get to choose your parents. You can’t vote your mother out of office, or impeach your dad. (even though many of us wish we could.) Furthermore, despite the high rate of divorce in this country, children don’t usually get new parents every four to eight years.

If one really wants to make this metaphor work, you’d have to say that being president is like being a single parent who adopts a busload of eight-year-olds from abusive families, all with behavioral problems out the wazoo. As president you get a mere eight years to nurture or discipline these walking bundles of neuroses before you have to hand them off to a completely new foster parent. To make your job even harder, the kids know you will be out of their lives after four or eight years (unless they can accuse you of high crimes and misdemeanors) and so they have zero incentive to mind you in any way shape or form.

Of course Lakoff understands very well metaphors are not literal descriptions of reality. That’s just his point. By definition they are imperfect; more art than science. The problem is, most people don’t understand these limitations. To coin a new metaphor – about metaphor – using Metaphors to describe reality is like combining a tragic opera with a stand up comedy routine. You don’t know whether to be serious or to laugh your ass off.

Think I’m kidding? Just take a look at the metaphor of the nation as a rational actor which, as Lakoff rightly points out, led to the insane cold war nuclear policy known as “Mutually Assured Destruction.”

Of course, metaphors are great for poking fun at politicians. A personal favorite of mine in this arena is the “sawing off the branch your standing on” metaphor to describe government officials who campaign on a platform of downsizing government. “Government is the problem. So I promise, if elected, to do as little as humanly possible.”

Or take Hank Paulson’s recent 700 billion dollar bank bailout which can best be described as a combination of Henny Penny and the Sheriff of Nottingham. “The sky is falling. Quick, hand me your wallet!”

Comedy aside, while metaphors are a convenient shorthand way to describe what we percieve in the world around us, they do little to aid our critical analysis of what we percieve. Metaphors say, in effect, "this is the way things are." They never prompt us to ask if the way things are is the way things should be. It is easy to accept a dog eat dog, "survival of the fittest" metaphor to describe modern capitalism. But where is the metaphor to question whether we want our society to be shaped in this way? If our brains are versatile enough to form the chemical pathways that allow us to form metaphors to describe the world around us, shouldn't we be able to dream up metaphors to describe how we think the world should be?

If we jail people like Michael Vick for promoting actual dog fighting then surely we should at least fine TV Pundits who use analogies like: "On the campaign trail, the vice president is expected act as the presidential candidate's 'attack dog.'"

The point is, the problem progressive’s face is not dreaming up zippier metaphors than the conservatives have. The problem lies in recognizing the limitations of using metaphors as a means to order our lives. In order to truly work, metaphors have to be every bit as complex, subtle and nuanced as the reality they are attempting to describe. And while it’s tempting to view the recent presidential election as simply a metaphorical referendum on parenting styles, the reality of who our president was, is, and will be, is too intricate and important to be summed up in glib, metaphorical sound-bites from the mouths of Olberman, O’Reilly, or Blitzer... or me.