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Saturday, February 09, 2019

The war on metaphors

Writers and pundits should go on metaphorical raids and carpet-bomb metaphors back to the metaphorical stone age.

A ccording to experts, we have slippery slopes, strawmen, and wars on drugs, poverty, boys, and girls; wars on abortion, ads, aging, alcohol, America, art, blacks, bread, bugs, carbs, cars, cash, Christmas, concussions, and cops. And that's just the ones up to ‘C’. Most discussions call them fallacies, but they aren't fallacies in any logical sense. Their flaw is not that a slope can't be slippery, but that our image is a flawed representation of reality.

What we really need is a war on metaphors. Metaphors are perfidious little bastards: our brains create them automatically, like little elves, and they're baked into the language (the meta­phors, that is, not the elves). They help us see similarities, but they can lead us into a fairyland, like when you get on the wrong plane and instead of going to Atlanta, Georgia you end up in Astana, Kazakhstan.

Chess fracas
Casualties of the war on metaphors. Elephant In The Room is third from the left, and Literally Hitler is on the far right. The rest, I don't know, make up your own jokes.

Astana, by the way, is not a home of camel herders pulling rickety carts on dirt roads. Since it was liberated from the soul-sucking succubus of socialism, a meat grinder that starved 1.5–2.4 million Kazakhs to death in the Goloshchekin genocide and killed more than half the country's population, Astana has become a spectacular modern city with glass skyscrapers, bike sharing, and miniskirts. Kazakhstan still is no bastion of liberty, but few things have been as beneficial for humanity and culture as the end of socialism.

Some conservatives love metaphors because they give them a way to proclaim defeat without ever having to fire a shot. One said the culture war is over and Christians should all go Benedictine until everyone else had restored science and religious tolerance and done away with hatred, war, Twitter, and disease. Another guy says that New York governor Cuomo's legalization of full-term abortion is proof that the cons in NY have “lost” the culture war.

That's the problem with metaphors. It's not just that people mix them, or that they push them too far and they fall off the cliff, becoming ever smaller until they disappear into a tiny cloud of dust like a cartoon coyote. A metaphor is a black hole that sucks you into itself until you come out the other side with your argument spaghettified and your thinking in a land that sort of, but not really, mirrors the real world.

The brain builds models of the real world based on similarities. That's probably the only way it could work, and this might sound Kantian, but we can never know the world in itself because the act of being conscious automatically distances us from it. But for people grounded in the real, physical world, which is to say everyone but The Ones Who Must Not Be Named On a Science Blog Which This Is Supposed To Be, there is a point where the brain says enough is enough and the narrative spell is broken.

“Culture war” is the H-bomb of metaphors, except that, unlike real H-bombs, the culture war is not real. There is no culture war. There are only people: politicians who think you can print your way to prosperity, ban your way to freedom, and divide your way to unity, and people on Twitter who have gone insane from the praise they get for saying whatever idiotic half-formed hateful thing pops into their head.

Sure, it is a fierce battleground, and the casualties are pitiful: people's careers are bleeding, their reputations tattered, their prose bloodily mangled, and their proofreading is in a concen­tra­tion camp slowly starving to death. And we get gems like this to keep us amused. But that doesn't mean it's a war that can be won or lost. At least the war on cancer might someday be over. The culture wars would only be lost if one side surrenders.

That's why the idea that the moon landing was a myth, or the idea that there's no such thing as a Higgs boson or a W± or Z0 particle, finds adherents. If you go through life unconnected from the empirical world, or if all you hear is the sounds in your echo chamber, you lose track of the logic that makes one conclusion inescapable and the other an open door to chaos. The logic on abortion is one of those cases.

Everything in the mind is a metaphor in some sense. But unlike the War on Cancer, which now drags into its 48th year (or 85th year, depending on whether you count the first salvo as Nixon's 1971 message or the BMJ's 1934 declaration); or the war on alpha-synuclein, which was lost when researchers realized that the signature protein in Parkinson's disease was just an innocent victim; or the war on Christmas, which was decisively won by Christmas thanks to intercontinental ballistic mangers and armor-piercing baby Jesuses and phalanxes of laser-guided Christians, the culture war cannot be won or lost in any real sense.

When a culture war is “lost”, the only permanent casualties are the ideas that don't hold up against empirical truth. Put another way, ideas that are empirically true must always eventually prevail. Even creationists recognize this, which is why they're out there digging up dinosaur bones hoping to find ancient iPads or fossilized rolls of Scott® Extra Soft™ toilet paper. They will never give up, and even we committed Darwinists have to give them credit for accepting that reality is ultimately defined by physical evidence, not by words.

We're not in a culture war. We're in a battle that will determine which direction our civilization will go, and whether it can survive. So those who like to say the war is lost are really saying we are already dead. And that's easy to disprove.

feb 09 2019, 4:48 am

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