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Have metaphors reached a stalemate?

Zawiyah: Not a metaphor for a stalemate

Over at guardian.co.uk, foreign affairs editor Peter Beaumont writes:

Zawiyah – 30 miles from the capital – is a metaphor for Libya’s current stalemate, which could itself end at any moment.

That ubiquitous, all-seeing gadfly Tim Worstall picks him (or rather, the Guardian’s subs) up on the use of “metaphor“:

Err, no. Zawiyah is not a metaphor for the current stalemate, it is an example of the current stalemate.

Well yes, Tim, and I’d go further: “Stalemate” is the wrong metaphor in the first place, since it signals the end of the game. No further move is possible, other than one which would put you in check. As in the old spiritual Rock-a My Soul, it’s so high, you can’t get over it, so low, you can’t get under it, so wide, you can’t get round it.

“Stand-off”, “deadlock” or “impasse” were really the words Mr Beaumont was groping for, since they each imply that some further action is possible, even if not probable. You can go round an impasse, as MacArthur did at Inchon, or smash a deadlock, or retreat and regroup from a stand-off. None of these are possible with a stalemate.

Which set me thinking about a thoughtful article in this week’s Spiked, The political use and abuse of metaphor, an interview with author James Geary by Patrick Hayes. Talking about the “explosion of metaphors” in the media about the economic crisis and, more currently, in events in Arab world, Hayes asks: Has metaphor replaced thought in modern political – and by extension, journalistic – discourse? In other words, have metaphors become so prevalent, so over-used, that we end up talking about the metaphor, rather than the actual underlying facts that gave rise to it?

It’s a fair point. Consider: when the banks started tumbling, there was a lot of talk from the Pestons of this world about how we were “on the precipice” and “staring into the abyss”. Similarly, with the recent events in North Africa, there’s been a lot of talk of a “domino effect” and a “contagion” of political unrest. How often these days so you hear almost any coincidence of even vaguely unsettling events described as “a perfect storm”?

The problem with mistaking the metaphor for the reality, and particularly when you have the wrong metaphor as Beaumont does above, was of course identified by the Blessed St George of Orwell in Politics and the English Language, particularly in the section about Dying Metaphors and again when he looks at mixed metaphors.

Orwell is not against the use of metaphor per se; no heir to Shakespeare could ever be. But he does demand that they be fresh, that writers or speakers actually visualise the image they want to use, ie think about what they saying, rather than trot out the tired, hackneyed phrases which “just like cavalry horses answering the bugle, group themselves automatically into the familiar dreary pattern.”

And as Hayes points out, as dazzlingly fresh as your metaphor may be, do not mistake it for the real thing:

Metaphors are undoubtedly an essential part of how we communicate, and they play an important role in the communication of ideas. But they are no substitute for the generation of the ideas themselves. To comprehend the situation in the Middle East requires a robust analysis of contemporary events. And once that’s been achieved then metaphors will flow freely and spontaneously. Hunting for a fresh new metaphor in lieu of a reasoned idea is to get things the wrong way round.

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