Metaphors Can Limit Us

I’ve been thinking a lot about metaphors and how indispensable they are to human speech and thought.  Whether or not we realize it, we can’t do much thinking or communicating without extensive use of metaphors.  Many of the metaphors we use we are unconscious of.

Language reveals the prevalence of metaphor.  Discussions where two people hold different opinions are referred to with war metaphors.  People stand their ground, or defend their position, etc.  It’s hard to know how these metaphors affect our perception of the world and might open up or limit our thinking.

Speaking of limiting, there are two common metaphors I think limit us in subtle but powerful ways.  The first is the chain metaphor.  The old adage is that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.  This metaphor is in the back of our minds in team settings, or organizations.  When you think about it, it’s a pretty bad metaphor, except for in unhealthy hierarchies.  It’s meant as a kind of reminder of our equality, so we don’t forget to help the weakest of our number lest we all get dragged down.  It has some value in this sense, but it also implies linear relationships and uniformity among individuals.  We are not links in a chain.  On our various social scenes we are more like nodes in a network.  If one node is weak or broken, the network can adjust and reroute information to the others.  It’s a distributed, indestructible series of interlacing webs.  If your organization truly is like a chain, that’s a pretty risky setup that puts way too much pressure on every participant.  Networks, on the other hand, are nimble, open-ended, adaptive, and allow for experimentation.

The second common metaphor I find limiting is based on the pie chart.  We love pie charts.  They seem scientific, plus they look like pie.  When visualizing where resources reside and contemplating ratios, the pie metaphor is in the back of our minds.  This is useful in a static world, but can be pretty detrimental in the dynamic world of the real.  The most obvious example is worldwide wealth.  Worry over who “controls” what percent of wealth is rooted in the pie metaphor.  If they have a lot, others must have little, and this must be bad.  But wealth moves quickly, and in a market, it can be created.  In fact, the only way to accumulate wealth is to create it for others.  So for one person to get more, someone else must also get more.  Transfers like theft and taxation are the only ways of getting wealth that do not create more for others.  This metaphor limits us in ways beyond just our macroeconomic thinking.  The pie tends to make us possessive and protective of ideas, or even happiness.  We’re afraid to openly share our thoughts and we worry that if others rise and gain popularity, wealth, success, etc. that must be bad for us.  It’s an unhappy metaphor that can turn us into envious, paranoid cranks.

I don’t think any metaphor is good or bad.  They are tools and can be more and less useful in various situations.  But I wonder how much we could improve our lives by occasionally examining the latent metaphors we use to make sense of the world?