Why ideas aren’t enough to solve the Palestine-Israeli conflict

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An advertising agency is trying to solve a bloody conflict. This is presumptuous on such as scale that it could be called idiotic. Quoth http://www.theimpossiblebrief.com:

“Rather than ‘out of date’ policies, we need ‘out of the box’ solutions. Let’s show the world that creative minds at their best can inspire even political leaders.”

Assuming that there’s an idea out there about resolving this conflict that noone’s ever thought of is nonsense. We should call this assumption that simple ideas can solve difficult problems the “TED Syndrome” (btw: I love TED talks, even if I share Stephen Downes’ misgivings about the TED ‘elite’). Simple solutions to complex problems exist but they are very rare and when we hear about them, we are seldom told the whole story. Generally, it should be safe to assume that a solution should be of proportional complexity to the problem.

What Saatchi and Saatchi are so ineptly asking for could be thought of as a kind of metaphor hacking. But could metaphor hacking done right find a solution to the Palestine-Israeli conflict?

Short answer: No.

And now for the long answer. Metaphor hacking can’t solve anything. There are never any magical conceptual ways out of configurationally difficult situations. Metaphor hacking can provide insight and direction for individuals or groups (see the paintbrush example) but it has to be followed by hard work (both real and conceptual – I would call simplistically this ‘propositional’ work). On its own insight (whatever its source) achieves nothing.

Let’s try a few small hacks and see how far we get.

Although it can certainly be helpful to be aware of the conceptualizations that are involved, this awareness doesn’t necessarily give us power over them (I know a stick half-immersed in water is not broken but no power on Earth will make me see it so, I know that there is no up and down for the Globe, yet seeing a map with Africa on top will seem strange). First, metaphor is not the only conceptual structure involved in how people understand this situation. Metaphor (and its brethren) are mental structures relying on similarity. We also need to look at structures of contiguity (metonymy) and add other conceptual structuring devices that are propositional, imagistic and textual.

Let’s start at the end. I purposely entitled the problem Palestine-Israeli conflict. Logically, it shouldn’t matter, conflict is a commutative relationship – if I’m in conflict with you, you are in conflict with me. But we have textual iconicity. The thing that is first in real life is more important, and therefore we tend to put the more important things first in language first. That’s why we are instructed to say politely “Ladies and gentlemen” which only underscores the hidden sexism behind “boys and girls”, “men and women”, etc. So a small hack for all involved. Make sure you always describe the conflict with an iconicity that goes against your natural inclinations. This is not going to solve anything but it might keep you more attuned to your own possible prejudices.

We can also hack the “we were here first” trope. Now remember, there’s no hidden metaphorical solution. But if we can accept that our understanding of “claim by primacy” is structured by a number of source domains from which no perfect mappings exist, we can perhaps invest the claims with a bit less weight. The only way to settle this argument would be to close off or designate as illegitimate some of these source domains. But since such closing off is always the result of the application of power and not some disembodied logic, this is not the right way to go about it. So a useful hack would be to list all the possible source domains for understanding the domain of “we were here first, therefore we have a claim to this X”, draw all the mappings from the obvious to the ridiculous and see how easily challenged any such claim must always be (or maybe we’ll find that one side has many more favorable mappings than the other but I don’t think that’s very likely).

Can we hack our way out of the holy place and holy war controversies? Again, mostly no. A lot of religion is based on similarity and contiguity: from sympathetic magic or Anglican liturgy to free market capitalism or theory of evolution. These are bolstered by textual constructions that normally don’t carry a particularly heavy semantic load but will discharge their potential meanings in times of conflict. The same formulas that are mindlessly droned by the faithful during their rituals (be they Sunday worship or a Wall Street Journal editorial) can be brought into full conceptual battle readiness when necessary. This conceptual mobilization is always selective. All liturgical systems are internally contradictory (they might tell you to love your mom and dad one day and to ditch them the next) and it is necessary that some formulas remain just that while others are brought out in their full semantic splendor. This is what makes ecumenicalism possible. But from there we can perform a useful hack. Not all ideas potentially contained in a text have to come to fruition. Ours and theirs. If we can just keep them as part of the liturgy and not get too incensed over them. If we can accept that while the others may recite verses that would have us die, they may not necessarily mean “really” die, then we can go have a cautious conversation to make sure of that.

Growing up in communist Czechoslovakia, I remember my largely pacifist and moderately Christian family and friends singing to the tune of John Brown’s Body (unaware of the gruesome irony) “when all the communists are swinging from a tree, when all the communists are swinging from a tree, when all the communists are swinging from a tree, then there will be paradise.” Few of them would have probably even supported the death penalty let alone be part of a lynch mob. But in the right circumstances…who knows? A similar case is made for the traditional song “Shoot the Boer” sung in South Africa in this On The Media feature. (Cf. also the fluctuating militarism of Onward Christian Soldiers.)

In the case of Israel-Palestine, of course, we know that some of the people involved would be and have been involved in the carrying out of the underlying meanings of their phrases. However, the thing to remember is that they don’t have to be. We just have to keep in mind that words and actions aren’t always in sync and that is usually to the good. So in other words, we can’t solve the idea problem with more ideas but we can temper the ideas and divorce them from actions. Not easy and not instantaneous but historically inevitable.

So the hacks might be interesting but we come back to the original assumption that difficult situations are difficult to resolve. There are many ways in which you can hack somebody else’s mind, magicians, con artists and advertisers do it all the time. But these hacks are very straightforward, build on frame-based expectations and rarely have a lasting effect. Propaganda and brain washing are a kind of a mind hack but they only work predictably in conjunction with real power closing off other sources of cross-domain mappings. Mostly, when it comes to metaphor, we can’t hack somebody else’s, we can present a few alternative mappings, we can offer a more detailed analysis of the source domain or even reject or replace a source domain altogether. But whether this will carry weight is dependent on factors outside of the metaphor itself (although perhaps relying on the same sort of principles) such as social prestige, context, material resources, political clout, etc. Ideas always come with the people who espouse them and I doubt ideas coming with Saatchi and Saatchi will have enough internal coherence to carry them over the disadvantages flowing from their carrier. Let’s hope, I’m wrong.

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I write like… a new more sophisticated stripper name?

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Making connections between ourselves and other people no matter how arbitrary, is an incredibly popular communal as well as private activity. The many algorithms for generating one’s stripper, mobster or some other kind of name have graduated from napkins in bars to Facebook apps and now proper quantitative analysis of text samples. But deep down they’re still the same. Is there a space here for hacking? Can we take this natural tendency, take it apart and put it back together again? Use it for good or for ill? I suppose most social engineering is the hacking of propositional frames, but are there explicit hacks of figurative language and thought? It’s certainly powerful enough when you find out that based on the About page here:

I write like
Vladimir Nabokov

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Just like with horoscopes, jumping on the connection gravy train is not easy to avoid. Mappings immediately started forming in my head: like with Nabokov, English isn’t my first language; like with Nabokov, I occasionally find my writing a bit tedious. But of course, taking a piece of writing from another blog, I find I also

I write like
Edgar Allan Poe

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!


Drat, I was kind of getting used to the Nabokov simile. Ok, maybe I have a certain feel for the macabre and a book of the 12 different Czech translations of the Raven was one of my favorites… But just when I ought to quit while proverbially ahead, I paste a few paragraphs from my academic writing and find…

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!


And I had to look this guy up! Simile fail!

NB: I wonder if they occasionally put up comparisons like Dr Seuss or complete nimrod.

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Hacking a metaphor in five steps

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Preliminaries

This is the image of the structure of "Th...
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1. Before you start metaphor hacking you must first accept that you don’t have a choice but to speak in some sort of a figurative fashion. Almost nothing worth saying is entirely literal and there are many things whose “literalness” is rooted in metaphor. Look at “I sat in a chair the whole day.” Looks very literal at first glance but it depends on our understanding of a chair as a container (e.g. he was spilling out of his chair) and the day as an object (e.g. she was counting the days, cutting the day short, a long day, etc.)

2. You must also learn to recognize how metaphors are constructed through mappings from one domain to another. Sometimes these mappings are explicit, sometimes they are hidden, sometimes they are clear cut one-on-one connections and sometimes they are fuzzy and cross levels of categorization. But they’re there. If you say, “life is a journey” you can also say “I’ve reached a fork in the road” or “I’ve hit a rough patch” because you map elements of the “road/journey domain” such as intersections, rocky surfaces, hills, etc. to elements of the “life domain” such as decisions and difficult time periods. This way of thinking about metaphor was popularized by Lakoff and Johnson in their 1980 book “Metaphors we live by” which is a great weekend read. However, do read the 2003 edition which contains an important additional chapter.

Metaphor hacking

Once you’ve done the above, you can start hacking (or really do them at the same time).

1. Find an example of a metaphor being used in a way that limits your ability to achieve something or one that constrains your thinking or actions. For example, “education is a marketplace.”

2. Identify the domains involved in the metaphor. The source domain is the domain of knowledge or experience which is being used to structure our understanding of the target domain. This is frequently being confused with concrete/abstract or known/unknown but very often the source domain is just as abstract or well/little known as the target domain. For example: The source domain of marketplace and business is no more concrete or better known than the target domain of education. But it can still be used to structure our understanding  of the domain education.

3. Identity the most common mappings between the source and target domains. These generally have the form of “X is (like) Y” and carry with them the assumption that if X is like Y, it should have a similar relationship to Z or perform similar activities. The “is like” function relies on a fuzzy concept of identity, a sort of family resemblance. For example, in the “education is a marketplace” metaphor, some common mappings are “students are customers” and “schools are companies providing a service”. Don’t make any judgements at this stage. Simply list as many mappings as you can find.

4. See which of the existing mappings are problematic in some way. Some mappings may lead us to others which we didn’t set out to create. This could be good or bad.  For instance, if we think of students as the clients of schools, it’s a very short step to thinking of  teachers as service staff and performance pay. This may be good or bad. But it also leads to students saying “I’ve paid you money for my education” so I deserve to pass. Which is a consequence very few would describe as good. You can also find some one-to-many mappings to see where the metaphor may get you into trouble. For example, if schools are businesses who is their customer? Students, parents, government or society? What is the currency? Knowledge, career prospects, etc. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with one-to-many mappings but they can underscore a possible problem area in the way the metaphor is being used to generate new understandings.

5. Finally, find other possible mappings and try to imagine what the consequences would be. For this, you must strive to learn as much as possible about both of the domains involved and keep an open mind about the mappings. Anything goes. This can be done in a negative manner to bring into question the premise of the metaphor. For instance, Jeffrey Henig pointed out in his book on the Market Metaphor in education that one of the key prerequisites to the functioning of the market is a failure of business entities but none of the market reformers in education have provided a sufficient alternative to failure in their market model of schools.  This should certainly give the market advocates a pause. It doesn’t automatically mean that the marketplace metaphor cannot help us understand education in a useful way but it points to a possible limit to its utility. This process is similar to the rhetorical technique known as reductio ad absurdum but it has a different purpose. Also the metaphor hacker will approach this process with an open mind and will rule nothing out as a priori absurd but will also understand that all these mappings as just options not necessary consequences.

But driving a metaphor forward is most often a positive experience. Donald A Schön called this kind of metaphor use the “generative metaphor”. He gives a great example from engineering. When trying to design a new type of synthetic bristle for a paintbrush, a group of engineers was stuck because they were trying to figure out how to make the paint stick to the threads. This led to blobs of paint rather than nice smooth surfaces. Until one engineer said “You know what, a paintbrush is really a pump”. And immediately the research shifted from the surface of the bristles to their flexibility to create a pump like environment between the bristles rather than trying to make the paint stick to them. Anywhere else the “paintbrush is a pump” metaphor would have seemed ridiculous but in this context it didn’t even need an explanation. The engineers just got on with their work.

This process never stops. You can always find alternative mappings or alternative domains to help you understand the world. You can even have more than one source domain in a process called blending (or conceptual integration) that generates new domains Fauconnier and Turner give the example of a computer virus which blended the domain of software with the domain of medicine to generate a domain of computer viruses that has some properties of both and some emergent properties of its own. But this is for another time.

Conclusion

All good hackers, engineers, journalists or even just members of a school or pub debate club have been hacking at metaphors ever since the phrase “is like” appeared in human language (and possibly even before). But this post urges a transition from hacking at metaphors to hacking metaphors in the best sense of the word. This requires some work at understanding how metaphors work and also getting rid of quite a few prejudices. We’re all used to dismissing others’ arguments as just metaphors and “literalness” is seen as virtue. Once we accept metaphors for what they are, we can start using them to improve how we think and what we do. Not through a wholesale transformation but through little tweaks and a bit of conceptual duct tape. And that’s what the hacker spirit is all about.

Readings

  1. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors we live by (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).
  2. Jeffrey R. Henig, Rethinking school choice: limits of the market metaphor (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994).
  3. Donald Alan Schön, Displacement of concepts (London: Tavistock Publications, 1963).
  4. Donald A. Schön, “Generative metaphor: A perspective on problem-setting in social policy,” in Metaphor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 254-283.
  5. Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner, The way we think: conceptual blending and the mind’s hidden complexities (New York: Basic Books, 2002).
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What it’s all About

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Rendering of human brain.
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Metaphors are not just something extra we use when we’re feeling poetic or at a loss for le mot juste, they are all over our minds, texts and conversations. Just like conjunctions, tenses or word. And just like anything else, they can be used for good or ill, on purpose or without conscious regard. Their meanings can be exposed, explored and exorcised. They can be brought from the dead by fresh perspectives or trodden into the ground by frequent use. They may bring us into the very heights of ecstasy or they may pass by unnoticed. They elluminate and obscure, lead and mislead, bring life and death. They can be too constrained or they can taken too far. They can be wrong and they can be right. And they can be hacked.

Hacking metaphors means taking them apart seeing how they work and putting them back together in a creative and useful way. People hack metaphors all the time without realizing what they’re doing and often getting into trouble by not recognizing that this is what they’re doing.  Paying a bit more attention to how metaphors work and how they can made work differently can make their hacking an easier process.

Oh, and …

Metaphor doesn’t really exist as a separate clearly delineated concept. It is really only one expression of a more general cognitive faculty I call conceptual framing. Depending on who you ask, it is different from or the same as simileanalogyallegory and closely related or in opposition to metonymysynechdoche, irony, and a host of other tropes. On this site, these distinctions don’t matter. All of the above rely on the same conceptual structures and metaphor is just as good a label as any for them.

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