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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“Rather than ‘out of date’ policies, we need ‘out of the box’ solutions.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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