Saturday, September 23, 2006

The Power of Metaphor

A metaphor makes a concrete image in the mind, bringing life and emotion to what might be abstract. To some extent, similes function in the same way, by comparing unrelated things. In both cases, we draw upon a physical sense – vision, hearing, taste, smell or touch, and create an alternate image that describes vividly some aspect of a completely unrelated phenomenon. This image-making is very powerful stuff.

Language shapes the thoughts we think... Lawyers who carefully craft opening and closing statements understand this instinctively. They choose the terms in which to present their case carefully, knowing that it will structure the jury’s thinking about the matter.

So, why do we dismiss its power in our everyday use? We do so at our peril. We use metaphors and similes all the time:

The thunder rumbled like distant artillery;


The running back punched through the enemy line.

When we slip into using metaphors like this last, we translate sport into war and even more aggression than football might ordinarily express. When we use sport or war metaphors and similes to think about events at work or home, we subtly transform relationships.

War, and most sports, are zero-sum games. There is only one winning side. The other side is the LOSER.

When we use images from sports or war to describe our personnel difficulties, for instance, or efforts to gain budget or attention or status, we change the way we think about these things. We become aggressors, or the victims of aggression. We either win or we lose, and the other side either loses or wins.

This seems to me to be a very destructive way to imagine relationships either at work or home. Be aware when you use language. You may be setting up enemy-images where none need to exist. You may be creating a win-lose situation when it could be win-win. I firmly believe that there rarely HAS to be a zero-sum game. I always look for some way to enlarge the pie rather than fight over a finite pool of resources.

1 comment:

Jacqueline Cantwell said...

The metaphors passing through my head this month come from the movie” I’m Your Man.” The film cuts between a concert honoring Leonard Cohen and a series of interviews with him and performers inspired by his work. People should see it if they can.

Answering a question about writing Cohen says, “You have to write what you are going to abandon.” The sentence is so sparse. It doesn’t contain any imagery. It relies upon two verbs, “write” and “abandon” for its impact. It is breathtaking. Cohen seems to be saying you have to recognize and clarify your thought –because that is what writing is – and then you have to move on from that effort to something else. You carry nothing. You live with failure. The metaphors are contained in the connotations of the words. His calmness in that interview segment awed me, because he is not a gentle man, as proven by his song writing. He is aggressive. His is a romantic aggression, but it is not to be dismissed. Seduction is always intriguing.

I think we need to refine how we think of aggression. Bullying and outrage are different, but each may use aggression to pursue their aims. I am outraged when I read how agencies fail to save children from abuse and murder. I would love to see an enraged public defending the weak and vulnerable. That kind of change will require skillful politics. The people who who can do such politics are subtle and cunning. They are not bullies, but they are not hesitant to use power.