Choose Your Metaphors Wisely

lynch-eraI’ll fess up.  I aired this concern to Jim Bowden:

A political buddy of mine let me know that my lynching and mobs in hoods metaphors for the hang-Jeff-Frederick-on-a-sour-apple-tree crowd offended him.   That’s important to me.  I hold this man in deep respect.  But, I told him I would use his complaint as a teaching moment.

The comment came via a personal e-mail I sent to Jim Bowden regarding his comparison of Frederick opponents to a lynch mob, their supposed anonymity being comparable to white hoods…

Indeed, what would we do without anonymous commentators? A small cabal shopping charges? Secret meetings? Leaked innuendo? A political campaign for what should be administrative justice?

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The sunshine is fine. Disinfects everything. Brings out the truth – which will out. Diogenes didn’t need to look for truth, it will come out – always does – sooner or later. (emphasis mine)

The comparison shocked many commentators on and off Bearing Drift.  And it shocked me… hence the reason I wrote Jim privately to air my concern.

Now Bowden and I go way back, and he and I have agreement on about a good 90% of the world around us.  We do differ on a few things (natural law, positivism, the whole Catholic/Protestant thing, and the appropriateness of Lee-Jackson Day).  We also agree on a whole host of other things: civilization as culture, the liberalizing effects of Western sic Christian civilization, conservative values, and the role and scope of government.

As a student of philosophy — amateur that I am — I understand entirely the concept that words mean things.  Not just in the sense that they mean what they intend, but that words have connotative value that are understood similarly by most, and slightly different than all.

wittgenstein_during_wwiiWittgenstein, for instance, would argue (and I believe accurately) that most if not all philosophical problems were ones of language.  Derrida’s approach of deconstructionism would argue that words do indeed hold differing values amongst people.  The word “red” could mean bright apple red to you, Redskins burgundy to me, cherry red to someone else, and so forth.  We all have a general idea of red, but our specifics differ enough that if we sought to paint a room the perfect color of red and brought back our own cans of paint color, we would probably bring back a fairly wide variation of red.

This is why precision in language is so dear.  Words not only mean things, words can also be easily misinterpreted even when we do not wish that to be so.  Not only is the speaker unable to communicate precisely what they wish by virtue of the limiting factors of words themselves, but the receiver will take those small variations and add into it their own perspectives on language .  Thus a cycle of miscommunication creates itself — disagreements where you find yourself ultimately saying the same thing with the person you are arguing is an excellent example of this at work.

Now humans being the remarkable creatures we are, we use all sorts of tools and methods to express ourselves more clearly, even when we know that the words we use precisely will be miscommunicated.  So instead of applying the scalpel, we break out the paintbrush and communicate in wide strokes.  Similes, stories, morals, and yes — even metaphors.

Sometimes they work masterfully in their exaggeration, and allow people to imagine their way into the culture, perspective, and thoughts of the storyteller.

Other times… they backfire.  Metaphors used to rhetorical effect can often impose a wide stroke of ill intent.  Politicians use this on us all the time.  Commercials advertising “whiter than white teeth” can influence us to buy one toothpaste over another.  Coke vs. Pepsi.  GM vs. Toyota.  One screaming toddler vs. the older sibling.  Drama is often used to great effect.

It is also used to the opposite effect.  Propagandists know a good metaphor when they see one.  Such tools can often be used to let the imagination run loose, and to cruel ends.  French revolutionaries used “liberty, equality, fraternity” to rally millions across Continental Europe.  The First World War saw the demonization of the “other” on both sides.  Joseph Goebbels twisted an entire nation against the Jewish people on such pretext.

rum_romanism_rebellionAmericans of course aren’t immune from such rhetorical sleights-of-hand.  For years, the potato-eating Irish were viewed as a pestilence and a threat (unless cheap labor was involved).  Anti-Catholicism spewed across the nation in the mid-19th century and has never quite abated.

And yes, men in white hoods roamed the South in search of expressions of outrage, tearing fathers from screaming wives and daughters and with murderous hate destroying another human life all on the basis of their skin color.

That is a lynching.  To lynch something, in America, dredges up connotations of hate, racism, evil, and a dark past whose symbols some Americans continue to honor despite their public protestations otherwise.

Let’s come back to Jim Bowden’s post on language, because he has some very important things to say that deserve remedying:

I used words like lynch, hang, mob, and hood.  I haven’t used kangaroo court – yet – because it doesn’t apply.  Did I call the SCC – of which I’m a member – the KKK?  Or, just the cabal sneaking around?  Nope.  Neither.  If I want to call someone the Klan, then I will.  I used the metaphor, because it describes the nature of the process.

Does it?

Does it really?

Does it really equate to a lynching?  A lynching?  Where people die based on the color of their skin?

Let’s not directly address this for the moment — it serves no immediate purpose — but let’s continue down the logic of Bowden’s argument:

So, let’s say I start describing what a few folks from the SCC are doing to Jeff Frederick as burning him at the stake.   Am I saying folks are the Spanish Inquisition or any vanilla witch burning village?  Or, could it be a reference to any Christian killing of heretics?  Or, the pagan murders of Christians as the enemy of humankind  – as Roman Emperor Diocletian did?

Who gets to be offended if I use the burning at the stake metaphor?  What do they get to accuse me, when they attack the messenger, like Liberals always do?  Am I anti-Christian?  Or anti-Catholic?  Or anti-Pagan? Or anti-Imperial Rome?  Look at how silly this spin and whine business is.

Pick up an apple.  Call it an apple.  Set down the apple and pick up an orange.  Apple?  No… it’s an orange.

Now if you used a metaphor — if you broke out a large enough paintbrush — you might be able to equate an apple and an orange as fruits.  But no amount of metaphorical sophistry is going to make the apple (no doubt from a sour apple tree reserved for an aforementioned chairman) an orange, anymore than calling the sky any color other than blue makes it less blue.

Again.  General ideas, specific differences.  A general act of violence to be sure, but between lynching (with a long tradition in the United States that continues to this day) and witch burning (a tradition that went out of style in the 17th century), there is no comparison.

Let’s get back to the idea of lynching, which in and of itself was a terrible, violent act designed not only to inflict terror upon a subservient population, but to rob the lasting victims and families of the justice America is supposed to be about.

Lynching is not a joke.  It is a metaphor reserved for perhaps the most heinous of crimes.  Did Nazi Germany slowly effect the lynching of an entire people?  Perhaps so… if lynching and the Holocaust could ever be equated.  But even in doing this, such a description ignores the Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, gypsies, Poles, Hungarians, and countless other untermenschen who perished at the hands of their captors.

Nazi Germany was famous for using rhetoric and propaganda to reduce their fellow human being to the status of other; of less than human.  Some folks like Keith Olbermann can get their kicks by comparing others to Nazis, but does that do us any service to use such metaphors?  Is O’Reilly really a Nazi?  Moreover, how do we end up trivializing the Holocaust when we resort to the argumentum ad Hitlerum in an intellectual debate — much less any discourse?

Without specific care, the words we use will not only come out of our mouths imprecisely by nature, but will always be received imperfectly by others.

Bowden closes with the following:

Let’ s use language to gain wider, richer meanings.  To communicate more.  Complain less.  Engage in language instead of trying to suppress speech.

Emmanuel Levinas was one of the great professors to emerge from the aftermath of the Second World War.  His experience with language and metaphor whipping the German nation into a frenzy, and the cultural amnesia that occurred afterwards, drove the Continental intellectual class to discuss what precisely brought this about.

Ryzard Kapuscinski’s The Other summarizes Levinas’ thought neatly:

At the outbreak of the First World War, Levinas was eight years old, and when the Second World War erupted he was thirty-three.  Thus he was growing up in the years when mass society was forming in Europe and the two totalitarian systems, communism and fascism, were coming into existence.  The person living in a mass society was typified by anonymity, lack of social ties, indifference towards the Other and, as a result of losing his cultural identity, defenceless and susceptibility to evil, with all its tragic results; the most inhuman symbol of this phenomenon would be the Holocaust.

emmanuel_levinasIt is this indifference towards the Other, which creates an atmosphere capable in particular circumstances of leading to Auschwitz, that Levinas countered with his philosophy.  Stop, he seems to be saying to the man hurrying along in the rushing crowd.  There beside you is another person.  Meet him.  This sort of encounter is the greatest event, the most vital experience of it all.  Look at the Other’s face as he offers it to you.  Through this face he shows you yourself: more than that — he brings you closer to God.

Levinas goes further.  He says you must not only meet the Other, accept him and converse with him, but you must also take responsibility for him.  Levinas’s philosophy distinguishes the individual and singles it out.  He indicates that apart from myself there is also someone Other, but — if I fail to make the effort to notice or to show a desire to meet — we shall pass each other by indifferently, coldly and without feeling, blandly and heartlessly.  Meanwhile, says Levinas, the Other has a face, and it is a sacred book in which good is recorded.

Here our interest is in Levinas’s thesis about the fundamental meaning of difference — that we accept the Other, although he is different, and that this difference, this otherness is rich and valuable, it is a good thing.  Yet at the same time this difference does not erase my identification with the Other:  ‘I am someone Other.’

If the Enlightenment told us that the Other is a person equal to us, a member of the same family to which we belong, and if compared with the Enlightenment later anthropology took  a step forwards, showing the European that the person from another race and tradition has his own, highly developed social and spiritual culture — then Emmanuel Levinas took us further still, proclaiming praise for and the superiority of the Other, and our duty to take responsibility for him.  Levinas even went so far as to say the Other is our master and that he is closer to God than I am, and that our relation with the Other should be a movement towards Good.  Here we are dealing with postulating philosophy, deeply ethical, demanding dedication and heroism, that can only be realised somewhere beyond the horizon of the average person’s everyday experiences.

For that sort of philosophy, a broad stroke of a metaphorical brush will not suffice.  Only the precision of an intellect deeply bound to the respect and love of the other person across the room — or on the other side of the keyboard — will enhance communication, and de-emphasize the dehumanizing factors of  “anonymity, lack of social ties, indifference towards the Other.”

Jim Bowden asked the question earlier:

Indeed, what would we do without anonymous commentators? A small cabal shopping charges? Secret meetings? Leaked innuendo? A political campaign for what should be administrative justice?

The answer? Words mean things.  Generalizations obscure truth.  Stop using metaphors, especially those that only bring confusion, harm, and objectify the “Other” — in this case, the grassroots activists and leaders bringing the charges against Jeff Frederick.

chosen_poorly

Insofar as it applies to l’affair Frederick as it is popularly becoming known, the titling of the pro-State Central crowd as a hooded lynch mob is demeaning at best, and unjustly insensitive at its very worst.  Naturally there are connotations with being called a lynch mob, and those who propagate that line of attack know this.  It’s a language war of sorts… one that need not be waged if fairness and accuracy are your penultimate concerns.

Otherwise, if the metaphors continue, then one can only reasonably expect the perpetuation of more of the same:  anonymous commentators, charges, secret meetings, innuendo, and political campaigns in place of just and ethical decision making.  That’s no good for anyone.

Thus ends our philosophy/linguistics lesson for the day.

(NOTE:  Before someone goes on a rant about the value of Continental philosophers, keep in mind that one of Levinas’ greatest admirers was a little known playwright and member of the Polish underground by the name of Karol Wojtyla — who quoted him extensively both as bishop and as Pope John Paul II.)

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