Hellish metaphors

These are some ideas behind the next writing exercise….

Humans are expert pattern-recognizers. For example: We see plants with central wooden trunks and leafy canopies and recognize them as trees even though each looks completely unique; We meet two completely different people with different appearances but can anticipate how they will react to certain kinds of behavior based on commonalities in their personalities; We can see common themes expressed in a piece of artwork and a piece of writing. I could continue endlessly with the most astounding and abstract examples. This pattern-recognition ability is essential to our perception, whether it’s to find sources of firewood or navigate social life.

These patterns or abstractions cover an impressively wide range of our cognitive ability: physical object categories such as trees, snakes or water; emotions such as joy or hostility; abstract ideas such as families, honesty and success; and even groups of concepts, such as “physical objects”, “emotions” and “abstract ideas”. Maybe some of the most interesting abstractions are those on the highest levels of generalization, concepts like: “good”, “bad”, “worthwhile”, “value” and so on.
These high-level abstractions are so complex that we can spend our whole lives trying to figure them out, all whilst being able to use them in day-to-day life. One of their functions appears to be to allow us to recognize similarities between problems and find universal solutions. For example, if I told you: “Whilst Fred is a bad person, he was very kind to me yesterday.”, this very limited information would probably trigger all sorts of questions and conclusions: for example, that either my understanding of Fred as a person is wrong, or that Fred has ulterior motives in his behavior, or that Fred has changed. All of these are remarkable insights from an extremely limited amount of information. This is the power of abstraction and metaphor.

For a more practical example, imagine I lent you my car’s and told you “The fuel gauge lies”. You would know that you should not only treat it as if it isn’t entirely accurate, but as if it’s trying to deceive you. You may even assume implicitly that it has fooled me into running out of fuel at an inopportune moment, and that you need to be extra cautious and believe it may be indicating precisely the opposite of the truth. This example shows how our innate ability to understand metaphors, allows us to communicate extremely efficiently and deal with new situations (e.g. someone else’s car’s faulty fuel gauge) as if they are familiar (e.g. imagining they’re like my lying ex-partner).

Sometimes, when dealing with highly complex and new situations, we’ll instinctively apply a metaphorical framework. For example, consider the use of a “war” as a metaphorical framework in the “war on terror”, “trade wars” or the “war on drugs”. These metaphors allow us to think about a new and unthinkably complex situation in terms of things that we know: People are dying from dug use? Let’s identify “enemies” that are causing this to happen and kill/capture/destroy them. Alternatively we might use a political metaphor: Two neighbors’ interest are in conflict? Let’s try to get them to “negotiate an compromise” based on compromise and their respective interests. Or a biological metaphor: My needs are being gradually overrun in my relationship like weeds encroaching on a vegetable-garden? I should spend some time pulling those weeds up again and making space for myself to grow.

Often, these metaphorical frameworks serve us incredibly well given how complex the situations are that we face. Sometimes however they lead us completely astray, because in the end they are simplifications of more complex situations. They are like a map of an island that is a sketch based on a vague understanding of what islands look like, rather that a detailed topographical study of the actual island itself.

It is worth exploring just how prevalent this (often unconscious) use of metaphors is. Think for a minute about the kind of language used in your workplace. You may hear words like “teamwork”, “game plans” and “passing the buck” – all sports metaphors. Alternatively, you might hear expressions like “outputs”, “a well-oiled machine”, “a break-down in communications”, “interlocking processes” – machine metaphors. War metaphors (“strategies”, “fighting competition”) and natural metaphors (”organic growth”, “nurturing”, “fertile soil”) are also common. Romantic relationships are also an area of live rich in metaphorical frameworks, being seen varyingly as projects, negotiations, wars, games, adventures and so on, each metaphor carrying its own attitudes, assumptions and approaches to problems.

Since we use metaphors so often in our thinking, it’s important to see their weakness clearly: While they are useful “rules of thumb” that allow us to quickly come up with reasonable solutions to complex problems, they are not good at generating unique and creative solutions.
For example, imagine you are a street food vendor competing with another vendor in the same street. Using a military metaphor, you might try to “conquer the market” by dropping prices and winning local customers. Or, with a nature metaphor you might try to grow the market together by encouraging an “ecosystem” of consumers through a food court and maybe other shops that attract people. However, all these metaphors ignore the very real possibility of simply relocating to another street.

Another example: I may be someone who sees relationships as essentially negotiations – a business or political metaphor. There is “give-and-take”, and at the end we “reach an agreement” in which both sides “meet halfway”. So far, this isn’t a bad principle. But what if my partner ends up in a situation where they can no longer “give” me anything. What if they for example encounter a major crisis or become chronically sick for a long period and are unable to do much more than lay in bed. On what basis can I decide whether I should stand by them and try to make them happy? I might find myself needing a new metaphor, for example of a team, or more likely, I’ll fall back on some personal moral code.

It’s not entirely clear to me that we can or should completely escape the pitfalls of misapplied metaphors, but I’d like to propose a partial solution: to see metaphors as mere tools; Try one, try another, and then take a step back and compare the solutions; Learn to play with metaphors, change them regularly, and don’t take any one framework too seriously. Hopefully, this more playful attitude to metaphors will help you “think outside the box”, “leave the beaten path” and “sally forth into the unknown”. For some exercises that use these ideas, have a look at:

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