It’s All Metaphor

Illustration from PC World Magazine

The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor. It is the one thing that cannot be learnt from others; and it is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in the dissimilar.


Well, thanks, dude!

When Nora and I started Teleidoscope Group seven years ago, we gave ourselves the job titles we wanted, instead of the normal CEO or President or such nonsense. I became the Director of Metaphor, and Nora, who has an innate capability of luring anybody into a rich conversation, became the Director of Dialogue.

Aristotle’s attribution of genius aside, I don’t know why I’ve always been drawn to see things in terms of other things. We all do this, of course, but we don’t always know that we’re doing it, and so we don’t think about alternatives. And metaphors always have alternatives.

A simile or other comparison is a simple affair. X is like Y, because they share some common feature. It’s a tool for noticing. A metaphor, on the other hand, is an ontological claim about what a thing is. When we wrestle or grapple with ideas, we mean that those ideas are dangerous opponents that we need to master. When we come to terms with ideas, we mean that truth is a bargain that we need to negotiate. When we interrogate an idea, we mean that it’s concealing its truth from us and we need to get past its superficial alibi. The way we define and approach any problem is based on what we think the problem is.

Twenty years ago, I spent some time in all four of California’s state mental hospitals. (As a consultant, not an inhabitant, thank you very much.) Those hospitals had become mostly populated by people who had arrived due to some form of court sentence: not competent to stand trial, not guilty by reason of insanity, and a special population that the Legislature had invented in 1995, the sexually violent predator who had served his prison term but was deemed unsafe for general release.

Those hospitals were governed simultaneously by two opposing metaphors. The security perimeter, the entry protocols, the restrictions against contraband, all of that came from seeing those institutions as prisons. And they were. They were guarded and set apart from the civilian world by the California Department of Corrections. But once you got through the sallyport and into the units, you were in a hospital, governed by the California Department of Mental Health. And those two communities despised each other, because they each saw everything about the place through their own governing metaphor. The prison guards saw the mental health staff as naive coddlers, and the residents as inmates; the mental health staff saw the prison guards as punitive and draconian, and the residents as patients. One institution was being simultaneously overseen by two communities with two fundamentally different definitions of what the institution was. You can guess how well that worked.

I think it’s far easier to change someone’s mind than to change their metaphor. Once someone has decided that social life is a Darwinian competition over scarce resources, no argument based on collaboration stands a chance. Once someone brings out the word “liberty,” it’s difficult to ask that they temper their behavior in favor of responsibility. If metaphors are fluid, then reality itself becomes fluid, and that’s just scary. It places lots more responsibility on us if we have to choose the metaphor we want to employ; safer to pretend that it just is what it is.

We think of language as a post hoc means of describing reality: the thing is there, sitting immaculate and innocent, and we decide how to talk about it. But I think it makes just as much sense to say that we create reality through language, that what we see and hear can only be known through the metaphors we’ve created to hold it. Your plans to pass a pleasant evening listening to Killswitch Engage can easily be disrupted by your dad hollering down the stairs, “Turn off that noise!” Same song, two definitions.

More tomorrow.

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