Monday, January 17, 2011

The Metaphor Trap

Lately I've been running into a lot of metaphors relating to LGBT rights. I tend to think in metaphor, so when I see someone using one to support a point with which I disagree, I can't resist deconstructing it and turning it back on itself. I find it satisfying -- so satisfying that I'm coming to see it as counterproductive. Please bear with me as I explain why. I promise to come out the other side of this with something useful to all of us as activists.

I few weeks ago, Johanna Maria Rose posted the following.
So let me get this straight... Larry King is on his 8th divorce, Elizabeth Taylor is possibly getting married for a 9th time, Britney Spears had a 55-hour marriage, Jesse James and Tiger Woods, while married, were having sex with everyone; and yet the idea of same-sex marriage is still going to destroy the institution of marriage? Really? Repost to your page if you agree - Proud to!
Gary Sibio disagreed.
Your argument is flawed. It's akin to arguing that the piano isn't a musical instrument because it sounds awful when a three-year-old bangs on it or a cat walks across it. Marriage, by definition, involves a man and a woman. It is not a relationship created by the government so the government has no authority to redefine it.
Here's my reply.
Gary I love the idea of new pairs of hands playing piano duets. It's an apt analogy because marriage, like the long line of instruments from which the piano arose, is an evolving concept. A piano bears as much resemblance to a harpsichord as the twentieth century notion of marriage does to its eighteenth century incarnation.
After failing to respond to me, and arguing with a few other people, Gary said
And after the government establishes "gay marriage" it can start to work on the square circle.
Again I turned Gary's metaphor on itself.
Well Gary, as straw men go, it ain't bad for a first try. It smells like sour grapes, which is good, 'cause ain't no crow gonna come near it. But it's awful flimsy lookin'. If a crow with no sense of smell comes along, or hell, a good stiff breeze, then that sucker's gonna be in the dirt! Speakin' o' which, here comes one now.

There is no circle. A circle has never existed and will never exist. A circle is an imaginary concept -- what Plato called a "form". In our "sensible world" we can draw circles, but these will never be more than imperfect reflections of that perfect and eternal circle.

Societies have been drawing their imperfect circles since there have been societies, and each society's circle has looked a little different from all the others. But I'd bet that wherever and whenever a circle has been drawn, there's been someone squawkin' about his circle bein' the only circle.
Then, last week, Laura Kanter posted a link to the Washington Post article Gay marriage isn't revolutionary. It's just the next step in marriage's evolution. Dennis Leight asked what I thought was a very important, and irresistible, question.
I've heard some people say "why does a peanut butter and jelly sandwich need to evolve?" What can you say to those people?
Here are the various responses I made.
  • Ain't nothin' illegal about eatin' a big thick peanut butter sandwich.

  • Should people who don't like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches be forced to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches?

  • Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches don't have to evolve. But they will evolve. It's only the people here, now, who assume that peanut butter and jelly sandwiches will never evolve. Just like people from every historical epoch assumed that their favorite food was the pinnacle of something or other. It's normal, human, chronological myopia: the demonstrably false assumption that if I did it this way, and my father did it this way, and my grandfather did it this way, then by golly that's the way it's always been done. It's not true. It's never been true. But people have always believed it to be true.

  • A peanut butter and jelly sandwich is an evolving construct. The thing that comes to mind when you say "peanut butter and jelly sandwich" bears little resemblance to what someone just a few generations ago would have thought of upon hearing those same words. You think that an amalgamation of partially hydrogenated corn oil, bleached flour, cane sugar and added salt is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich because that's what the intersection of our particular culture and economic forces have settled on. But someone from fifty years ago would take one bite and spit it into the trash can.

    The things with which we choose to fill our lives are constructs. Constructs evolve. Inevitably. Children take comfort from sameness. Can't we, as adults, take comfort from the consistency of unsameness?
Then, just a few days ago, Pam Spaulding linked to the Windy City Times article Cardinal George on gay marriage, in which Cardinal George was quoted.
While it is one thing "creating laws so that people don't feel persecuted," the cardinal explained, "don't create a law that says apples are oranges." For a lawmaker to do so, George added, he "betrays his vocation to pass good law," especially problematic for a "Catholic lawmaker."
This prompted the following from me.
Again with the food metaphors. He says "don't pass a law saying that apples are oranges". Fine, we won't. But what does that have to do with the issue at hand? I'll tell you what: apples and oranges were each made by this universe's tendency to spawn complex, self-replicating systems... or by God, if that's what you believe. Whatever. The point is that apples are as they should be, and oranges are as they should be. Likewise, straight people and gay people are as they should be. Would you try to make orange juice from apples? No? Fine. Then don't pretend that gay people don't exist, and don't deny them the right to marry the people whom they love. Simple.

It seems to me like Cardinal George wasn't being honest in his metaphors. If he was, he would've said "don't pass a law saying that rotten apples are apples". If he believes that gay people are defective, he should be clear about that and deal with the consequences.
I love playing with language. I love the challenge not only of taking apart the metaphor and revealing its flaws, but of making from the pieces a more robust machine that serves my own purposes. I love the idea of smiling in the face of the person from whom I took the metaphor, and thanking them for helping me make my point.

I love it too much.

Reducing political arguments to attractive metaphors may make people on my side smile and agree with me, but it's almost certainly not going to help me convert anyone. More importantly, it plays into the hands of my opponents. People who are against LGBT rights win by reducing people to one of two abstract concepts: a joke or a threat. And what is metaphor but abstraction?

So from now on I think I'm going to resist the pull of the metaphorical argument. From now on I'm going to refuse to talk in terms of abstractions. When someone starts talking peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, I'm going to cut them off, saying "We're not talking about peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We're talking about people." The same goes for apples and oranges, or circles. We must refuse to allow the abstraction of a human being.

Not convinced? Don't think it's reasonable to dismiss those cute, punchy metaphors? Well, don't believe me. Just ask Plato. He was all up in that metaphor shit. Here's a summary of the Platonic conception of the elements from a page about da Vinci's Platonic solids.
Plato conceived the four classical elements as atoms with the geometrical shapes of four of the five platonic solids... This concept linked fire with the tetrahedron, earth with the cube, air with the octahedron and water with the icosahedron. There was intuitive justification for these associations: the heat of fire feels sharp and stabbing (like little tetrahedra). Air is made of the octahedron; its minuscule components are so smooth that one can barely feel it. Water, the icosahedron, flows out of one's hand when picked up, as if it is made of tiny little balls. By contrast, a highly un-spherical solid, the hexahedron (cube) represents earth. These clumsy little solids cause dirt to crumble and breaks when picked up, in stark difference to the smooth flow of water.
Yeah. Uh huh. We all know how well that "pointy fire particles" theory withstood the test of time.

Folks, just because the metaphor seems to fit perfectly... it's still just a metaphor. People are people. Nothing more, nothing less. So don't get sucked in. If anyone tries to reduce a person to an apple or an orange, let them know the error of their ways. Tell 'em they fail as hard as Plato.

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