When Metaphor Breaks Down

We as a species love to speak in metaphor. Perhaps it’s a learned trait, perhaps it’s hardwired somewhere in the poetic soul of humanity. Perhaps it’s just our feeble attempt to grapple with things and ideas that would otherwise be incomprehensible or our desperation to avoid careful, nuanced understanding at all costs. Many experts and laypeople have written about metaphor and its relation to thought—does the way we use language affect the way we see the world? does metaphorical thinking make us more empathetic? can using metaphors ease our negative feelings?—so if you’re looking for a treatise on the function of metaphor in society, do a quick google search and then read for the next ten years.

Whatever the function, and I do believe that language and metaphor shape the way we think and interact with the world, metaphor is an inescapable part of society. (If you need a refresher on what “metaphor” actually is or entails, check out this article.) Even putting aside the casual metaphors that have wormed their way into everyday conversations—things like “falling in love” or “running out of time”—straightforward “this is like this” metaphor is a favorite way of explaining big topics, especially to children or those considered ignorant or uninformed, which, if you’re on the internet, seems to be everyone who is not you. In religion, in politics, in the realms of emotion and mental illness—metaphor is everywhere. Just this week I’ve seen religion described as both a disease and a cure, systemic racism explained as a house fire, anxiety compared to a video game soundtrack, and multiple people likened to various fictional characters. None of those are bad metaphors. They all explained a relevant facet of the issue or individual at hand. But therein lies the metaphor’s shortcoming. A single metaphor, or even a handful of metaphors, cannot fully encapsulate the nuance of any issue we as humans need metaphor to understand.

Metaphor is most often applied in everyday discourse when something is too big to grasp completely. Often this means practically that there are multiple factors contributing to a larger idea and that the information we have is inconclusive or up to interpretation and that there are differing opinions on different pieces of whatever idea is at hand. It’s too big for one solution or one explanation. So with all of those moving parts, we use metaphor to explain and understand what we deem the most pressing and relevant parts.

If everyone agreed on and fully understood something, there would be no need for metaphorical explanations. We would be able to say, “that rock is smooth and hard,” and everyone would just go, “yes it is.” But when we’re faced with a concept like a god, we’re left with statements like, “he’s a shepherd” or “she’s a mother” or “it’s in all of us,” and everyone bickers about which of those is true and why the rest are not and why the people who believe certain of those statements are out of their rational minds. Because for all the usefulness of metaphor, when it’s taken at face value, its incomplete nature inevitably leads to arguments and strife. It’s the story of the blind men and the elephant, arguing over whether the beast in front of them was more like a tree or a spear or a snake. None of them were wrong, but none had the whole picture. And instead of pausing to take into account the opinions and views of their peers, they each argued their own small truth, missing the totality of the thing in front of them.

As a writer, I adore metaphor. It creates images and ideas and feelings that straightforward literal prose can’t quite reach. But all rhetoric is inherently deceitful, and so I also see its danger.

Having just one piece of the story doesn’t lead to informed decisions. Believing that your one piece is the most important and none of the other pieces matter is a recipe for disaster. It may turn out that you’re right, and those other pieces aren’t relevant. It may turn out that you’re wrong and your piece was the irrelevant one. Most likely, history will show that it was a multifaceted concept and while some people had better points than others, most everyone’s view had a bit of validity. And even if you believe someone’s view has no validity based in reality, it’s valid in their own mind. Telling them they’re a moron isn’t going to be as effective as listening to their full viewpoint and then, if you still disagree, respectfully and thoughtfully explaining to them why you don’t believe their idea has merit and what might be a better solution.

Metaphor is a tool for understanding. When used well, it can explain a complicated idea in a way that everyone can use as a jumping off point. But when used exclusively, metaphor functions as a way of alienating one person from another. No metaphor is perfect, and clinging to a metaphorical explanation to the exclusion of other ideas is harmful both to the clinger and to everyone they share their ideology with. So use metaphors. Explain your viewpoints in ways that others can understand. But be aware of the limitations. And above all listen. Maybe if we put our metaphors together we might just be able to understand the whole elephant.

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