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Pervasiveness of Obliging Metaphors in Thought and Deed

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when history is at its most obliging, the history-writer needs be at his most wary.” (China by John Keay)

Die Mykologen - Glückspilze - Lucky Fellows - Fungi ExpertsI came across this nugget of wisdom when I was re-reading the Introduction to John Keay’s history of China. And it struck me that in some way this quote could be a part of the motto of this blog. The whole thing might then read something like this:

Hack at your thoughts at any opportunity to see if you can reveal new connections through analogies, metonymies and metaphors. Uncover hidden threads, weave new ones and follow them as far as they take you. But when you see them give way and oblige you with great new revelations about how the world really is, be wary!

Metaphors can be very obliging in their willingness to show us that things we previously thought separate are one and the same. But that is almost always the wrong conclusion. Everything is what it is, it is never like something else. (In this I have been subscribing to ‘tiny ontology’ even before I‘ve heard about it). But we can learn things about everything when we think about it as something else. Often we cannot even think of many things other than through something else. For instance, electricity. Electrons are useful to think of as particles or as waves. Electrons are electrons, they are not little balls nor are they waves. But when we start treating them as one or the other, they become more tractable for some problems (electrical current makes more sense when we think of them as waves and electricity generating heat makes sense when we think of them as little balls).

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson summarize metaphors in the X IS Y format (e.g. LOVE IS A JOURNEY) but this implied identity is where the danger lies. If love is a journey as we can see in a phrase like, ‘We’ve arrived at a junction in our relationship’, then it surely must be a journey in all respects: it has twists and turns, it takes time, it is expensive, it happens on asphalt! Hold on! Is that last one the reason ‘love can burn with an eternal flame’? Of course not. Love IS NOT a journey. Some aspects of what we call love make more sense to us when we think of them as a journey. But others don’t. Since it is obvious that love is not a journey but is like a journey, we don’t worry about it. But it’s more complicated than that. The identities implied in metaphor are so powerful (more so to some people than others) that some mappings are not allowed because of the dangers implied in following them too far. ‘LOVE IS A CONTRACT’ is a perfectly legitimate metaphor. There are many aspects of a romantic relationship that are contract-like. We agree to exclusivity, certain mode of interaction, considerations, etc. when we declare our love (or even when we just feel it – certain obligations seem to follow). But our moral compass just couldn’t stomach (intentional mix) the notion of paying for love or being in love out of obligation which could also be traced from this metaphor. We instinctively fear that ‘LOVE IS A CONTRACT’ is a far too obliging a metaphor and we don’t want to go there. (By we, I mean the general rules of acceptable discourse in certain circles, not every single cognizing individual.)

So even though metaphors do not describe identity, they imply it, and not infrequently, this identity is perceived as dangerous. But there’s nothing inherently dangerous about it. The issue is always the people and how willing they are to let themselves be obliged by the metaphor. They are aided and abetted in this by the conceptual universe the metaphor appears in but never completely constrained by it. Let’s take the common metaphor of WAR. I often mention the continuum of ‘war on poverty’, ‘war on drugs’, and ‘war on terror’ as an example of how the metaphors of ‘war’ do not have to lead to actual ‘war’. Lakoff showed that they can in ‘metaphors can kill’. But we see that they don’t have to. Or rather we don’t have to let them. If we don’t apply the brakes, metaphors can take us almost anywhere.

There are some metaphors that are so obliging, they have become cliches. And some are even recognized as such by the community. Take, for instance, the Godwin law. X is Hitler or X is Nazi are such seductive metaphors that sooner or later someone will apply them in almost any even remotely relevant situation. And even with the awareness of Godwin’s law, people continue to do it.

The key principle of this blog is that anything can be a metaphor for anything with useful consequences. Including:

  • United States is ancient Rome
  • China today is Soviet Union of the 1950s
  • Saddam Hussein is Hitler
  • Iraq is Vietnam
  • Education is a business
  • Mental difficulties are diseases
  • Learning is filling the mind with facts
  • The mind is the software running on the hardware of the brain
  • Marriage is a union between two people who love each other
  • X is evolved to do Y
  • X is a market place

But this only applies with the HUGE caveat that we must never misread the ‘is’ for a statement of perfect identity or even isomorphims (same shapedness). It’s ‘is(m)’. None of the above metaphors are perfect identities – they can be beneficially followed as far as they take us, but each one of them is needs to be bounded before we start drawing conclusions.

Now, things are not helped by the fact that any predication or attribution can appear as a kind of metaphor. Or rather it can reveal the same conceptual structures the same way metaphors do.

‘John is a teacher.’ may seem like a simple statement of fact but it’s so much more. It projects the identity of John (of whom we have some sort of a mental image) into the image schema of a teacher. That there’s more to this than just a simple statement can be revealed by ‘I can’t believe that John is a teacher.’ The underlying mental representations and work on them is not that different to ‘John is a teaching machine.’ Even simple naming is subject to this as we can see in ‘You don’t look much like a Janice.’

Equally, simple descriptions like ‘The sky is blue’ are more complex. The sky is blue in a different ways than somebody’s eyes are blue or the sea is blue. I had that experience myself when I first saw the ‘White Cliffs of Dover’ and was shocked that they were actually white. I just assumed that they were a lighter kind of cliff than a typical cliff or having some white smudges. They were white in the way chalk is white (through and through) and not in the way a zebra crossing is white (as opposed to a double yellow line).

A famous example of how complex these conceptualisations can get is ‘In France, Watergate would not have harmed Nixon.’ The ‘in France’ and ‘not’ bits establishe a mental space in which we can see certain parts of what we know about Nixon and Watergate projected onto what we know about France. Which is why sentences like “The King of France is bald.” and “Unicorns are white.” make perfect sense even though they both describe things that don’t exist.

Now, that’s not to say that sentences like ‘The sky is blue’, ‘I’m feeling blue’,'I’ll praise you to the sky.’, or ‘He jumped sky high.’ and ‘He jumped six inches high.’ are cognitively or linguistically exactly the same. There’s lots of research that shows that they have different processing requirements and are treated differently. But there seems to be a continuum in the ability of different people (much research is needed here) to accept the partiality of any statement of identity or attribution. On the one extreme, there appears something like autism which leads to a reduced ability to identify figurative partiality in any predication but actually, most of the time, we all let ourselves be swayed by the allure of implied identity. Students are shocked when they see their teacher kissing their spouse or shopping in the mall. We even ritualize this sort of thing when we expect unreasonable morality from politicians or other public figures. This is because over the long run overtly figurative sentence such as ‘he’s has eyes like a hawk’ and ‘the hawk has eyes’ need similar mental structures to be present to make sense to us. And I suspect that this is part of the reason why we let ourselves be so easily obliged by metaphors.

Update: This post was intended as a warning against over-obliging metaphors that lead to perverse understandings of things as other things in unwarranted totalities. In this sense, they are the ignes fatui of Hobbes. But there’s another way in which over-obliging metaphors can be misleading. And that is, they draw on their other connections to make it seem we’ve come to a new understanding where in fact all we’ve done is rename elements of one domain with the names of elements of another domain without any elucidation. This was famously and devastatingly the downfall of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior under Chomsky’s critique. He simply (at least in the extreme caricature that was Chomsky’s review) took things about language and described them in terms of operant conditioning. No new understanding was added but because the ‘new’ science of psychology was in as the future of our understanding of everything, just using those terms made us assume there was a deeper knowledge. Chomsky was ultimately right-if only to fall prey to the same danger with his computational metaphors of language. Another area where that is happening is evolution, genetics and neuroscience which are often used (sometimes all at once) to simply relabel something without adding any new understanding whatsoever.

Update 2: Here’s another example of overobliging metaphor in the seeking of analogies to the worries about climate change: http://andrewgelman.com/2013/11/25/interesting-flawed-attempt-apply-general-forecasting-principles-contextualize-attitudes-toward-risks-global-warming/#comment-151713.  My comment was:

…analogies work best when they are opportunistic, ad hoc, and abandoned as quickly as they are adopted. Analogies, if used generatively (i.e. to come up with new ideas), can be incredibly powerful. But when used exegeticaly (i.e. to interpret or summarize other people’s ideas), they can be very harmful.

The big problem is that in our cognition, ‘x is y’ and ‘x is like y’ are often treated very similarly. But the fact is that x is never y. So every analogy has to be judged on its own merit and we need to carefully examine why we’re using the analogy and at every step consider its limits. The power of analogy is in its ability to direct our thinking (and general cognition) i.e. not in its ‘accuracy’ but in its ‘aptness’.

I have long argued that history should be included in considering research results and interpretations. For example, every ‘scientific’ proof of some fundamental deficiencies of women with respect to their role in society has turned out to be either inaccurate or non-scalable. So every new ‘proof’ of a ‘woman’s place’ needs to be treated with great skepticism. But that does not mean that one such proof does not exist. But it does mean that we shouldn’t base any policies on it until we are very very certain.

Image Creative Commons License Hartwig HKD via Compfight

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Pseudo-education as a weapon: Beyond the ridiculous in linguistic prescriptivism

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Teacher in primary school in northern Laos

Teacher in primary school in northern Laos (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most of us are all too happy to repeat clichés about education to motivate ourselves and others to engage in this liminal ritual of mass socialization. One such phrase is “knowledge is power”. It is used to refer not just to education, of course, but to all sorts of intelligence gathering from business to politics. We tell many stories of how knowing something made the difference, from knowing a way of making something to work to knowing a secret only the hero or villain is privy to. But in education, in particular, it is not just knowing that matters to our tribe but also the display of knowing.

The more I look at education, the more I wonder how much of what is in the curriculum is about signaling rather than true need of knowledge. Signaling has been used in economics of education to indicate the complex value of a university degree but I think it goes much deeper. We make displays of knowledge through the curriculum to make the knowledge itself more valuable. Curriculum designers in all areas engage in complex dances to show how the content maps onto the real world. I have called this education voodoo, other people have spoken of cargo cult education, and yet others have talked about pseudo teaching. I wrote about pseudo teaching when I looked at Niall Ferguson‘s amusing, I think I called it cute, lesson plan of his own greatness. But pseudo teaching only describes the activities performed by teachers in the mistaken belief that they have real educational value. When pseudo teaching relies on pseudo content, I think we can talk more generally about “pseudo education”.

We were all pseudo-educated on a number of subjects. History, science, philosophy, etc. In history lessons, the most cherished “truths” of our past are distorted on a daily basis (see Lies My Teacher told me). From biology, we get to remember misinformation about the theory of evolution starting from attributing the very concept of evolution to Darwin or reducing natural selection to the nonsense of survival of the fittest. We may remember the names of a few philosophers but it rarely takes us any further than knowing winks at a Monty Python sketch or mouthing of unexamined platitudes like “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

That in itself is not a problem. Society, despite the omnipresent alarmist tropes, is coping quite well with pseudo-education. Perhaps, it even requires it to function because “it can’t handle the truth”. The problem is that we then judge people on how well they are able to replicate or respond to these pseudo-educated signals. Sometimes, these judgments are just a matter of petty prejudice but sometimes they could have an impact on somebody’s livelihood (and perhaps the former inevitably leads to the latter in aggregate).

Note: I have looked at some history and biology textbooks and they often offer a less distorted portrayal of their subject than what seems to be the outcome in public consciousness. Having the right curriculum and associated materials, then, doesn’t seem to be sufficient to avoid pseudo-education (if indeed avoiding it is desirable).

The one area where pseudo-education has received a lot of attention is language. Since time immemorial, our ways of speaking have served to identify us with one group or layer of society or another. And from its very beginning, education sought to play a role in slotting its charges into the linguistic groups with as high a prestige, as possible (or rather as appropriate). And even today, in academic literature we see references to the educated speaker as an analytic category. This is not a bad thing. Education correlates with exposure to certain types of language and engagement with certain kinds of speech communities. It is not the only way to achieve linguistic competence in those areas but it is the main way for the majority. But becoming “educated speaker” in this sense is mostly a by-product of education. Sufficient amount of the curriculum and classroom instruction is aimed in this direction to count for something but most students acquire the in-group ways of speaking without explicit instruction (disadvantaging those who would benefit from it). But probably a more salient output of language education is supposed knowledge about language (as opposed to knowledge of language).

Here students are expected not only to speak appropriately but also to know how this “appropriate language” works. And here is where most of what happens in schools can be called pseudo-education. Most teachers don’t really have any grasp of how language works (even those who took intro to linguistics classes). They are certainly not aware of the more complex issues around the social variability of language or its pragmatic dimension. But even in simple matters like grammar and usage, they are utterly clueless. This is often blamed on past deficiencies of the educational system where “grammar was not taught” to an entire generation. But judging by the behavior of previous generations who received ample instruction in grammar, that is not the problem. Their teachers were just as inept at teaching about language as they are today. They might have been better at labeling parts of speech and their tenses but that’s about it. It is possible that in the days of yore, people complaining about the use of the passive were actually more able to identify passive constructions in the text but it didn’t make that complaint any less inaccurate (Orwell made a right fool of himself when it turned out that he uses more passives than is the norm in English despite kvetching about their evil).

No matter what the content of school curriculum and method of instruction, “educated” people go about spouting nonsense when it comes to language. This nonsense seems to have its origins in half-remembered injunctions of their grade school teacher. And because the prime complainers are likely to either have been “good at language” or envied the teacher’s approbation of those who were described as being “good at language”, what we end up with in the typical language maven is a mishmash of linguistic prejudice and unjustified feeling smug superiority. Every little linguistic label that a person can remember, is then trotted out as a badge of honor regardless of how good that person is at deploying it.

And those who spout the loudest, get a reputation of being the “grammar experts” and everybody else who preemptively admits that they are “not good at grammar” defers to them and lets themselves be bullied by them. The most recent case of such bullying was a screed by an otherwise intelligent person in a position of power who decided that he will no longer hire people with bad grammar.

This prompted me to issue a rant on Google Plus, repeated below:

The trouble with pseudo educated blowhards complaining about grammar, like +Kyle Wien, is that they have no idea what grammar is. 90% of the things they complain about are spelling problems. The rest is a mishmash of half-remembered objections from their grade school teacher who got them from some other grammar bigot who doesn’t know their tense from their time.

I’ve got news for you Kyle! People who spell they’re, there and their interchangeably know the grammar of their use. They just don’t differentiate their spelling. It’s called homophony, dude, and English is chock full of it. Look it up. If your desire rose as you smelled a rose, you encountered homophony. Homophony is a ubiquitous feature of all languages. And equally all languages have some high profile homophones that cause trouble for spelling Nazis but almost never for actual understanding. Why? Because when you speak, there is no spelling.

Kyle thinks that what he calls “good grammar” is indicative of attention to detail. Hard to say since he, presumably always perfectly “grammatical”, failed to pay attention to the little detail of the difference between spelling and grammar. The other problem is, that I’m sure that Kyle and his ilk would be hard pressed to list more than a dozen or so of these “problems”. So his “attention to detail” should really be read as “attention to the few details of language use that annoy Kyle Wien”. He claims to have noticed a correlation in his practice but forgive me if I don’t take his word for it. Once you have developed a prejudice, no matter how outlandish, it is dead easy to find plenty of evidence in its support (not paying attention to any of the details that disconfirm it).

Sure there’s something to the argument that spelling mistakes in a news item, a blog post or a business newsletter will have an impact on its credibility. But hardly enough to worry about. Not that many people will notice and those who do will have plenty of other cues to make a better informed judgment. If a misplaced apostrophe is enough to sway them, then either they’re not convinced of the credibility of the source in the first place, or they’re not worth keeping as a customer. Journalists and bloggers engage in so many more significant pursuits that damage their credibility, like fatuous and unresearched claims about grammar, so that the odd it’s/its slip up can hardly make much more than (or is it then) a dent.

Note: I replaced ‘half-wit’ in the original with ‘blowhard’ because I don’t actually believe that Kyle Wien is a half-wit. He may not even be a blowhard. But, you can be a perfectly intelligent person, nice to kittens and beloved by co-workers, and be a blowhard when it comes to grammar. I also fixed a few typos, because I pay attention to detail.

My issue is not that I believe that linguistic purism and prescriptivism are in some way anomalous. In fact, I believe the exact opposite. I think, following a brilliant insight by my linguistics teacher, that we need to think of these phenomena as integral to our linguistic competence. I doubt that there is a linguistic community of any size above 3 that doesn’t enact some form of explicit linguistic normativity.

But when pseudo-knowledge about language is used as a n instrument of power, I think it is right to call out the perpetrators and try to shame them. Sure, linguists laugh at them, but I think we all need to follow the example of the Language Log and expose all such examples to public ridicule. Countermand the power.

Post Script: I have been similarly critical of the field of Critical Discourse Analysis which while based on an accurate insight about language and power, in my view, goes on to abuse the power that stems from the knowledge about language to clobber their opponents. My conclusion has been that if you want to study how people speak, study it for its own sake, and if you want to engage with the politics of what they say, do that on political terms not on linguistic ones. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t point out if you feel somebody is using language in a manipulative or misleading ways, but if you don’t need the apparatus of a whole academic discipline to do it, you’re doing something wrong.

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