Friday, May 13, 2011

The Lens of Metaphor in Social Discourse

As a teacher in a girls’ lockup treatment facility in the 1990’s, I read about a US Supreme Court case argued during the previous decade in which the “inculcative role” of schools played a part in the legal opinions about the constitutional rights of local school officials to include or remove materials in school libraries.

I found something unsettling about the words “inculcative role,” so I looked up the word inculcate in an etymological reference book.  There I found the source of my discomfort.  While various references will describe the derivation somewhat differently, the basic idea is that inculcate comes from the Latin root calx, or heel, and suggests “to drive in,” as with the heel.

Well, call me an old softie, but I didn’t like that metaphor as a description of the role I was to play in these girls’ lives.  I felt my students had been stomped on enough, some of them probably quite literally, and I sensed that more stomping, even with the best of intentions, was not likely to be well received.  In fact, I don’t really like the idea of inculcating anyone with anything.

Besides, the writer in me winced; the word inculcative is an awkward and seldom-used variation on inculcate, yet some highly educated seated justices decided to use it.  The only reason I can think of is that the word expressed exactly what they were trying to say. 

Fortunately, a few years earlier a scholarly acquaintance of mine had encouraged me to read the works of Jacques Derrida.  While I do not pretend to have understood much of what I read, one idea I did glean from my time holding Of Grammatology in my hands is that much of our language consists of dead metaphors, of which the word inculcate is a fine example. Derrida says words are like coins that have circulated so long that the markings denoting their metaphorical implications have been effaced.  Thus it could come to pass that educated people in the highest court in the land could write about schools stomping values and ideas into children, and do so apparently without the slightest sense of queasiness. 

Such metaphors, however, can be extremely powerful.  Like a transparent lens through which we view the world, metaphors can shift our focus at a subconscious level, shaping our perceptions and with them the thinkable range of our practical options.  And, let us not forget, our feelings and the emotional content of language are heavily involved in the idea-building process.  Even without knowing, for example, the brutal metaphor hiding in the word inculcate, consider how different it would feel to discuss sharing values, or perhaps cultivating, promoting, or introducing them to children. The feeling tone of inculcate casts a particular emotional light on things, with real consequences in the actions that follow.

I believe such invisible metaphors are at least part of the reason why so many of us in the environmental movement now find ourselves in the midst of a multilayered challenge that also embraces the areas of psychology, economics, peace, and social justice.  For example, we may be horrified by agricultural practices that appear very much like chemical warfare, replete with insecticides, pesticides and herbicides. The incidental exposure of agricultural workers to these chemical agents is a hazard like that of soldiers at war, and the contamination of soil, air, water and the general population constitutes what in military euphemism is called “collateral damage.”  Fundamentally, however, the problem is that in the thought processes of those who are creating this system and operating within it, effective action is conflated with killing enemies.  War is in effect the guiding metaphor.  For those who think poetry has no real effect on the world, consider this: the practical upshot of the metaphor of “agricultural warfare” is that millions of tons of poisonous materials flow into the ecosphere, and options available to produce food and fiber without them seem to vanish. 

At the same time, we wonder how to promote international peace.  But how can we do that when the way we “wage peace” is so very like the way we wage war?  Given that killing, warfare, and brutality are central metaphorical constructs that consciously or subconsciously govern the discourse, it doesn’t matter to what field they are applied, be it education, medicine, agriculture, economics, or international affairs.  Since everything connects, sooner or later real (not metaphorical) tanks will roll, and actual toxins will be introduced into the environment by the ton.  Thus we find ourselves behaving in ways that are unfeeling precisely when the exigencies of these times call for us to gather all of our sensibilties: to feel more comprehensively and to think more fully in order to successfully engage with our current circumstances.

With both economic and natural systems in upheaval and big changes both ongoing and immanent, clearly the time for practical action has arrived.  Yet to discover new ways of relating to others and the planet, we will need new lenses on the world.  This is precisely why the development and conscious choosing of new metaphors is needed in the discourse on peak oil, climate change, transition, environmental stewardship, and international peace.  The Green Hand Reskilling icon, the promotion of which is one of the purposes of the blog where perhaps you are reading this, suggests one possibility for such a metaphorical construct.  It is a hand.  It is, hopefully, your hand, reaching out, open, suitable for lending, and connoting all an open hand implies in terms of connecting, creating, giving, receiving, and the all-important quality of willingness to engage with others and the world.  Posting a Green Hand sign is an invitation, a way of saying to the world that you, personally, are willing to step forward, dream up wonderful new ideas, dialog with others, and share visions, information, and practical skills that can make a difference.

Like other powerful metaphors, the Green Hand connects to and draws energy from a host of related cultural signifiers, such as a handshake.  In addition, the idiomatic expressions and words of many languages (such as, in English, “lend a hand” and “handy”) will work synergistically to help extend, define and add emotional color the Green Hand icon’s metaphorical domain.  My hope is that these observations will offer a useful framework for those who would like to offer up their own guiding metaphors to the flow of social discourse.  Upcoming blog posts will introduce more.

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