The transforming power of metaphor

Metaphors are the basic building blocks of how we think and communicate with one another. Let’s use more that speak to the highest elements of human nature, not just war and competition.

Neil Howard
12 February 2014

Credit: All rights reserved.

I want to talk about metaphors. In particular, how metaphors structure what we think about society, ‘human nature,’ and thus what kind of world we believe is possible. What I’m going to say isn’t revolutionary - in the sense that it hasn’t been said elsewhere by other people - but it does have revolutionary implications.

What is a metaphor? We use them all the time: they are simply a way of thinking about something in terms of something else. To illustrate, let’s use the example of sport. Three common metaphors are below:

- ‘Bayern Munich are a machine’ (that’s a German football club in case you didn’t know)

- ‘Peyton Manning is a metronome’ (he’s a quarterback in the other, American brand of football)

- ‘Old Trafford is a fortress’ (ok, another football example, that’s Manchester United’s ground)

None of these statements is literally true. Bayern Munich are obviously not a machine – they are 11 well-trained guys running around and kicking a football. But the idea of a machine expresses how well they function at what they do. By saying that ‘they are a machine,’ we evoke characteristics like power, efficiency and reliability.

The same is true of ‘Manning’s metronome.’ Peyton isn’t a real metronome, of course, but his arm is so accurate and highly-attuned that he reminds us of something metronomic. Likewise with Old Trafford, which isn’t a real fortress, but it used to be so hard to go there and win that fans would use the idea of a fortress as something imposing, fearsome and impenetrable to express that fact.

Why are metaphors so important?

First, because human brains and language operate by using them - they are basic building blocks of how we think and communicate. We make sense of the world by seeing how one part of it relates to and is reflected in another.

Second, metaphors are important because they structure not only how we see the world, but also how we are able to see it, and thus how we are able to remake it.

What do I mean? To continue with the football analogy, it used to be said that teams who went to Old Trafford were always half-beaten before they’d arrived. This wasn’t just because Manchester United were a very good team; it was also because teams went there thinking of Old Trafford as a fortress from which they’d never emerge other than defeated, so they denied themselves even the possibility of a victory. Teams went there with self-defeating fear.

Let’s take another example from beyond the realms of sport. A common metaphor in society, and one examined at length by the those who first started looking at this stuff in detail, is the metaphor that ‘argument is war.’ Think of the following everyday expressions:

- ‘Your claims are indefensible.

- ‘I demolished her argument’.

- ‘He shot down all of my positions’.

- ‘You can’t win a debate like that’.

We talk about arguments in terms of war, and so we see and experience them in that way. We think about winning or losing. When someone challenges what we say, we see that person as a threat, and adopt a defensive position. I have done this consistently throughout my life, and now I see how destructive it can be.

But what if I’d used a different metaphor for disagreement, like a ‘dance’ or a ‘team-game’? In the former case, I wouldn’t think of winning or losing, attacking and defending; I’d think of harmony, balance and the dovetailing of movement. In the latter, I’d have seen every position as a building-block towards the creation of shared meaning: ‘what you say adds to what I said, and together we can improve on both.’

So, metaphors do matter. They represent and create meaning. They create the world as it is and as it can be. What of the major social and political metaphors we live by? What are their implications?

The dominant socio-political metaphor of our time is that of competition, as in ‘life is a competition, and human beings are competitors built to play it’.

Let’s think about this first at the macro-level, in terms of society and the economy. How often do you hear from politicians that ‘we need to be more competitive’, that ‘we’re in a global race’, that we need to be ‘streamlined and efficient’, because in races there are only winners and losers? Have you heard about China ‘overtaking us’, about the need to ‘get educated and get ahead’, about our labour-market needing ‘greater flexibility’ in order for us to innovate and ‘stay in front’? What about the notion of ‘limited resources’ over which we must compete, lest our competitors take them and we are left with nothing?

This thinking also applies at the level of the individual. When we hear about ‘human nature,’ it’s frequently in the context of reports that tell us that people are innately selfish, or that they’ll scrounge off you if they can get away with it. Capitalism, the market-society, is the only system we can have because communistic cooperation ‘goes against human nature.’ In scientific thought, human beings evolved as the victor in a competitive, genetic race to universal dominance, the ‘survival of the fittest.’

I don’t deny evolutionary mechanisms or argue that all competition is bad. Far from it. Some competitive instincts are fundamental to our species, and some competition is great - in football, for example (there’s a surprise).

But competition is not all that we are. So when we limit ourselves to understanding individuals and societies in terms of competition alone, we deny the co-operative element that is equally fundamental to our nature and also the potential key to a better, freer, fairer world.

Co-operation is everywhere. It is sewn into the fabric of our lives. Very few parents approach their children as competitive enemies, for example. Or think of the times on the bus when you see someone offer their seat to an older person, or when someone carries someone else’s bag up the stairs. Think of when you exchange glances with a stranger, even for just a second, and you share that most basic, non-competitive of gestures, the smile. Or think of Wikipedia - an entire global phenomenon built by people who co-operate for nothing, simply to enjoy themselves by sharing knowledge for the good of humanity. That too is ‘human nature’.

That’s precisely what feminists, ethics-of-care theorists and a good many socialists have been arguing for years: that we human beings are far more than just competitors, we are also lovers, carers, protectors and providers. We are hard-wired by evolution not only to compete but also to work together and to help each other through the messy business of survival. In fact, without the ‘human nature’ of care and co-operation, there would be no competition at all, because none of us would make it past the entirely-dependent stage of infancy.

The metaphor that humanity and society equal competition is a lie: if all we did was compete, we simply wouldn’t exist.

What are the implications of all this for society and politics? If the metaphors we live by structure how we think and what we do, then they also limit or free us to create a different world. Currently, we live in a narrow-minded world that tells us we’re built to fight against each other and that competition is unavoidable. This is a world that teaches us that life is a winner-takes-all race and that those few who win it - 85 of them according to Oxfam - are entitled to be as rich as the poorest 3 billion people put together.

This is nonsense. What metaphors show us is that life is only a competitive race if we believe that it’s only a competitive race. That means that another world is possible.

This isn’t to deny the militarized obstacles and organized injustices that oppress us and stand in our way, or to pretend that the entrenched interests that are ranged above us won’t fight to keep competition front and centre. I’m not saying that ‘if you simply change your mind, the whole world changes with you.’ But by changing our metaphors, we can change our minds, and make a pretty good start at changing the world around us. Other worlds only become possible when we realise that the one we live in isn’t inevitable. Understanding metaphor shows us that this venal, competitive, rat-race of a world isn’t all that ours could be.

We can, wherever possible, choose not to compete. We can choose to try and create more co-operative, loving, caring relationships and communities; ones that are structured to bring out those higher elements of our ‘human nature.’ We can reject the rules of those who tell us that extreme inequality and poverty are inevitable, simply because ‘competition’ says so. We can be more open, more prepared to share and distribute what we have among ourselves according to our needs, rather than our power.

Wouldn’t that be better than staying on the ‘battlefield?’

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