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31 July, 2010

Pick Your Metaphor With Care

A while back I wrote of the danger historical metaphors pose to statesmen, analysts, and others concerned with public affairs. While the focus of that post was analogies of a historical nature, the general points of concern extend to any metaphor we use to explain the world around us.

Human beings have a difficult time grasping the vast complexity of this world. As the duc d'Otrante likes to remind us, no human brain can fit all the universe inside it. We compensate for this deficiency by simplifying – by collecting all the random bits of information available to us and fusing them together into one cohesive, simplified, narrative. It is this process – narrative building – that has allowed humanity to survive and thrive throughout the millennia. And throughout this span the creation of metaphors has been an essential part of our narrative crafting abilities.

Every metaphor is an attempt to apply the logic of one situation to the problems of another. The utility of metaphorical devices is easy to grasp: metaphors allow man to transform complex abstractions into ideas and images more concrete and familiar than the original. As a labor saving device, metaphors have no peers. If the logic of one situation can be applied to the other, no one need waste time learning the intricacies of both.

Metaphors thus follow the pattern of a bow-tie platform. The central features of the bow-tie is its ability to accept complex and variable inputs (the left "bow"), convert them into a compact core (the "knot"), and then use what is stored in the core for a wide variety of purposes (the right "bow"). This pattern is a common to many complex systems, and can be found in structures as diverse as electric circuits and eukaryote organelles.

Generic bow-tie

Metaphors work the same way. Here the left "bow" is the original concept, process or idea that needs to be understood, the "knot" is the symbol equated with this concept, and the right "bow" is everything those who hear the metaphor associate with this symbol. Macbeth's famous lament, "life's but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing" (Macbeth, Act V, Scene v), could thus be visualized as follows:


Macbeth's metaphor as a bow tie.

These visualizations illuminate the limitations of any metaphor. Macbeth tells us that life is like the performance of a bad actor. However, beyond being full of sound and fury, he sheds little light on what a bad actor actually is. The assumption is that the audience listening to Macbeth already has a good idea of what makes a good actor and what makes a bad one. Like most sane people told to think of a poor actor full of meaningless sound and furry, I recall Nicolas Cage. Sadly, not all people are sane. While it may surprise some of my readers, there are those who do not believe that Macbeth was trying to equate life with Nicolas Cage. Though we may all hear Macbeth utter the same lines, the ideas, images, concepts, and people we associate with his lines will not be the same.

This is the central problem of metaphors, symbols, and slogans. While they condense large amounts of information into small, easily understood packages, those using metaphors have little control over how this information will be unpacked. How a metaphor will be understood depends very much on the past  experiences and cultural background of those hearing it. What seems to be an effective metaphor for one man may be meaningless to another.

Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the world of international politics. The actors on this stage are a diverse lot, haling from many a different land, language, and culture. Here statesmen must pick the metaphors they use with utmost care. At this level a poorly thought out metaphor has consequences.

Many of my readers will remember a debate that divided the American foreign policy establishment for the better part of the last two decades. While little heard now, the question was often asked during America's brighter days: Should the United States be the world's policeman?

While Americans were divided on the question, the rest of the world was not. The great majority of those living outside of the United States protested vehemently against the motion. Most Americans chalked this up to rational realism on the part of those who feared America and irrational anti-Americanism on the part of everybody else. This may be true, but it overlooks a simpler explanation. While suitable for domestic audiences, the metaphor of the hegemonic policeman was poorly framed for those living outside the United States.

Americans like their police. Policemen and detectives are the stars of the evening line up of every major American television network. We hold campaigns to "honor fallen policemen." After the military, the police are the most trusted institution in the nation. Americans never doubt that the police will protect their neighborhoods; if an American is lost a policeman is the first person he or she will ask for directions.

This is what Americans thought of when asked if the United States should be the world's policeman. They were trying to decide if the United States should be the country that gives people the right directions.

The rest of the world saw things differently.

What the Americans forgot is that the rest of the world those they would be "policing" have been dealing with a very different sort of police. Recent police actions in Turkey illustrate the difference:

Emma Sinclair-Webb. Human Rights Watch. 10 April 2010.
(Istanbul) - A recent string of shootings and ill-treatment by police officers demonstrates the widespread problem of excessive violence by Turkish law enforcement officials against members of the public, Human Rights Watch said today.

In separate incidents in the last three weeks, law enforcement officials in Turkey shot and seriously wounded a man in the western town of Kuşadası; badly beat a child in the south-eastern city of Hakkari; and shot and killed a child near the Iranian border.

"These shocking incidents are the latest examples of an all-too-familiar pattern of police violence in Turkey," said Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch. "They should serve as a wake-up call for the government about the urgent need to do more to combat these abusive practices."



The Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, a national nongovernmental organization, has documented 48 incidents of fatal shootings by police and gendarmerie during 2009 alone, concluding in each case that the circumstances warrant a full investigation to determine whether the shootings constituted summary killings.

"It's obvious authorities need to take more resolute action to end this horrific record, averaging a fatal shooting almost every week," Sinclair-Webb said. "They need to make clear that lethal force should be an absolute last resort to protect life, and not a routine means to catch a suspect....."In southeast Turkey, and especially in the town of Hakkari, there have been several recorded instances of individual or small groups of police officers assaulting or using excessive force against children during demonstrations. On April 23, 2009 television news channels broadcast footage of a masked member of the police special operations unit beating a 14-year-old boy, S.T. in the head with a rifle butt and kicking him in the course of dispersing a demonstration.

Outside of America, the police are not nearly so well liked. Talk to a man from India, Brazil, China, Nigeria, Russia, or the countries near them and you will hear a shockingly similar story. The police in these places do not serve the public. They extort them. These policemen are often violent, commonly cruel, and always eager squeeze bribes out of those they comes across. As an institution they are corrupt, and under them the law is upheld in an arbitrary and irregular fashion.  

Americans should not have been surprised that the men and women from these countries wanted nothing to do with a world policeman. It was a failure of American public diplomacy to ask the world to accept the United States in such a role. We never stopped to consider that others would unpack our symbols differently than we. 

The consequences are not difficult to see:



A poorly chosen metaphor.

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