Wednesday, July 11, 2012

"If Your Metaphor Stink, I Will Stop My Nose"

The name of this post comes from a very funny, fleeting scene in a not very funny play, All’s Well That Ends Well. That play is so notably not-very-funny that most scholars have now moved it out of the “Comedies” column into the “Problem Play” category, along with some of my favorite ditties like The Winter’s Tale and Measure for Measure. This post isn’t, however, about “problem plays.” It is about problematic metaphors.
Metaphors are one of the most effective devices we have for communicating a great deal of information efficiently. They “carry across” meaning such that an abstraction is rendered more concrete. The person receiving information conveyed by metaphor is able to “see” what you mean in a way that transcends the merely mechanical.  Word pictures also conjure up emotions. So metaphors connote distinctly positive or negative value judgments among the bundle of information they provide.
Some metaphors are so entrenched that we don’t even think of them as metaphors. For instance, when we say an argument “stinks” we are using one such entrenched metaphor. We do not literally mean that the argument smells bad. But because we all understand the concept of literal stinkiness we have no trouble understanding what a person means when they say someone’s analysis stinks metaphorically speaking—and we know that this is not a compliment.
Some metaphors force us to stop and think through the comparison that is being made because the metaphors are novel or involve multiple steps, as with analogies. The ability to appreciate the nuances of metaphor and analogy says a lot about a person’s analytical reasoning skills (which is why the SAT used to have those pesky sections devoted to Analogies). Making effective analogies is, therefore, an important skill for advocates, not just poets. Being able to expose how an opponent’s metaphor or analogy breaks down is very important, too. Analogical thinking is, quite simply, a core skill in the legal arena. Choosing metaphors that sound the right note (to use a metaphor) is something lawyers have to think about when writing briefs, advising clients, talking to juries.
The first bit of Shakespeare that my daughter memorized was Sonnet 18—which is all about metaphors and how they can come up short. Here is how it starts:
            Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
            Thou art more lovely and more temperate.

In trying to explain this sonnet to my daughter back when she was five, I had a problem. And my problem had to do with Texas. With this sonnet, Shakespeare is saying that a “summer’s day” is an inadequate metaphor for his Beloved because, as great as a summer’s day is, it just cannot compete with the youth’s all around fabulousness. (BTW: most everyone agrees now that this most popular of love poems was addressed to a young man, probably the mysterious “Mr. W.H.” to whom Shakespeare dedicated the sonnets.) In any event, the problem I had explaining this sonnet had to do with us living in Texas, not England. In Texas, “summer” is oppressively hot and humid; it is the time of year when flowers shrivel and when inviting someone to take an afternoon walk could be construed as a threat. For a Texas girl to comprehend Shakespeare’s “summer’s day” metaphor it had to be translated, placed in a specific cultural/geographical context. The bucolic summer to which Shakespeare was alluding is more like our October.
            Shall I compare thee to an October day?
            Thou art more lovely and more temperate.

Ah, now, that makes sense!
With this particular example, the problem with the metaphor cannot be blamed on the author. Shakespeare’s metaphor was not inept; it just got a little lost in translation. But many metaphors are problematic because the author/lawyer employing them has not thought them through carefully enough. Sometimes ill-conceived metaphors expose a fundamental weakness in an argument or trigger unintended associations that incline the audience to resist the outcome the metaphor-maker propounds. But the urge to use metaphors, to make analogical arguments is almost instinctual. And because they are vivid, they are disarming—even if they do not hold up under close scrutiny.
For instance, in part of his “Obamacare opinion” that is not part of the Court’s opinion, Chief Justice Roberts relies on an extended metaphor to explain his position that the “individual mandate” is not constitutional under the Commerce Clause.  More specifically, Roberts concludes that, in passing the mandate that all non-exempt individuals buy some basic health insurance or pay a penalty, Congress exceeded its authority “[t]o regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.” U.S. Const. art I, § 8. And he explains himself by comparing the problem of the health insurance market to the problem that “many Americans do not eat a balanced diet.” Roberts says that, just because both of these failures—to buy insurance and to eat a healthy diet—have real consequences on the “health care market” that does not mean that the Government can require you to do something just because the Government would like you to do it. According to Roberts, the Government’s position with regard to the insurance mandate is wrong because ordering people to buy health insurance or pay a fine is analogous to “address[ing] the diet problem by ordering everyone to buy vegetables.”
But I wonder: are those two things really analogous? How coherent is the metaphor? Aren’t there some noteworthy differences between insurance and broccoli? Insurance is a product that involves a hedge against future risks that only works as a matter of collective action; individual decisions to buy or not buy insurance affect the larger system in fundamental and immediate ways—such as in shaping how premiums are calculated. Vegetables are, by contrast, a rather different kind of product. I am not sure how even large numbers of people’s decisions not to buy vegetables is having a palpable, negative impact on the national food market such that every individual participating in that market feels some of those bad effects each time they eat. Besides, I know that I, a big broccoli fan, am paying less for my vegetables each month than I am for health insurance—and yet with the veggies, I get something I can consume as soon as I pay for it. Of course, if I buy more veggies than I get around to eating, they will soon perish in the fridge; whereas not using my insurance tends to be something that the purveyors of the product see as a good thing. My insurance will not rot if I fail to use it in time; but even if I do not use it much, when I do need it, I can still expect to pay a pretty penny because of all the other people out there not buying it and yet insisting on eating anyway and thus driving up the prices for all concerned. I don’t think it works quite that way with vegetables.
Then again, I could be wrong. Perhaps Roberts chose a terrific metaphor and the fault lies with me. “I just don’t get it,” as my daughter said when I first trotted out Sonnet 18. Let’s keep thinking about it. But you can be sure that, “if your metaphor stink, I will stop my nose; or against any man’s metaphor.” All’s Well That Ends Well, V.2.13.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this-- I'm working on a blog entry about metaphor as a core skill, and your thoughts gave me something to consider!