In his seemingly unlimited capacity to #trigger people, Arvin Vohra, Vice Chair of the Libertarian Party, recently posted this on Facebook:
“Guys, we shouldn’t speak badly of rapists. Many people rape, and they vote. If we attack them, they might not vote libertarian!”
That’s how some of you sound when you suggest we pander to public school “teachers” and members of the military welfare complex in order to not lose their votes.
Without going further, I’m sure readers will accurately assume the most common response to this. Of course, the widespread was one in which the commenter pretended to be excessively stupid by pretending not to understand metaphors and how they work. In fact, every time I think of this and how common it is, I’m reminded of Christ saying, “It is harder for a rich man to get into Heaven than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle.”
I suspect Americans today would ask, “Jesus, are you saying rich people are camels?!”
We saw exactly the same thing when Donald Trump, Jr. made his analogy using Skittles over immigration and refugees, when he said that “refugees are like a bowl of Skittles [or M&Ms?] where some of them are poisoned. Would anyone out there really help themselves to a handful?”
Predictably, the widespread response to this on Twitter was “Are you saying we should eat refugees?” The sentiment was so common that a news site, doing its typical crap of taking samples of tweets and compiling them into an “article,” used several different tweets that expressed that confusion.
The alarming possibility is that there are people out there who sincerely don’t understand how metaphors work. This is more plausible than it should be, given how few American adults actually read (anything more than Facebook posts and tweets]. The ability to read and process information is indisputably helped by reading (hence why people’s reading levels tend to increase the more they read), and Reading Comprehension is similarly helped by exposure. However, the ability to reason is also critical to understanding analogies, and I’m not sure that reasoning can be taught. One either knows how to think or one doesn’t.
Cue Joshua Smith, who fancies himself qualified to be the Chair of the national Libertarian Party (despite having no more qualifications than I have, and I’m imminently unqualified):
Wow, you just compared school teachers to rapists.
Just when I thought there wasn’t possibly any way you could get edgier and drive more people from the party.
Can’t wait for June 30th.
Joshua Smith was not alone in this idiocy. I called him out on this directly, of course:
You’re over here (at best) pretending not to understand a basic metaphor and how metaphors work. That is 100% worthy of condescension. Don’t obfuscate stupidity if you don’t want people to think you’re an idiot.
At worst, you legitimately don’t understand how metaphors work, which is more sad than funny. But I think I’m okay with being condescending of a grown ass man who claims to read philosophy but doesn’t know how metaphors work.
…and earlier, when he attempted to change the subject to “being an asshole”:
Don’t change the subject. This is about you deliberately feigning ignorance over something you know damned well that you understood.
Joshua continues to this point denying that he’s simply pretending not to understand how metaphors work. This is, as I’m sure you’ve observed, very common. It’s almost impossible to use any kind of metaphor in conversation with people these days, because they either knowingly pretend not to understand, they have convinced themselves that they don’t understand, or they actually don’t understand. There’s not much that we can do about the latter, except aknowledge their apparent mental handicap and stop trying to reason with them.
The middle group–those who understand how metaphors work but who have convinced themselves that they don’t, because then they can be outraged at the non-meaning they extract from the statements–are caught up in doublethink, and I think the logical absolutes are the only way to break people out of doublethink. They know that they understand, but they have forgotten that so that they can feign ignorance. I suspect Joshua falls into this group. They know that Arvin was not comparing teachers to rapists, but it doesn’t matter; they have forgotten that and convinced themselves otherwise.
The first group are those who deliberately and consciously pretend to be stupid, again because this allows them to be outraged and triggered over the meaning that they imagine.
Who can blame them? Outrage works. It’s a method of putting the speaker on the defensive. Instead of the point they’re trying to make getting the focus, they instead end up spending the entire conversation defending what they said and trying to explain that they did not, in fact, compare rapists to teachers.
So let’s break Arvin’s down. What is Vice Chair Vohra referring to? The actions of people in response to teachers and rapists.
On the one hand, we have the fictionalized hypothetical response of someone to rapists as effectively defending them, saying that we shouldn’t antagonize them because then they won’t vote for us. It’s not rape or the rapist who is the focus of this, but the person responding to the rapist. The person acting in this metaphor is the person responding to teachers and rapists; neither the teacher nor the rapist are acting here. They are not, therefore, the subjects of the metaphor, since they are not the ones acting.
Then Arvin pointed out that this person’s response is just as stupid when it is teachers to whom they are responding. There is no quantitative assessment of how “bad” rape or teaching are; there is just the assumption that both are bad, and this is not presented in any comparative sense. There’s no comparison at all in Arvin’s words to the act of rape and the act of teaching in a public school. The comparison is entirely about the way people react to rapists and to public school teachers. So in its most basic form, Arvin’s metaphor is quite clearly not comparing rapists to teachers; it is comparing how people react to teachers to how people react to rapists.
The first step to understanding any metaphor is to determine what, exactly, is being compared, and what it’s being compared to. “Cat is to mouse as bird is to worm” is a simile, and what is it comparing? Is it saying that cats are birds? Is it saying that cats and birds are the same thing, or that mouse and worms are the same thing? In fact, the relationship between the cat and the mouse is being compared to the relationship between the bird and the worm. None of the animals are being compared. Their relationships are being compared.
Now that we have determined what’s being compared, we have to identify that the comparison is. This can be difficult, and is dependent on the reader’s knowledge. Here, we are comparing the cat’s predatorial relationship with the mouse to the bird’s predatorial relationship to the worm. Presumably, we are doing this as an attempt to explain to someone that birds hunt and eat worms. So we’re using this analogy (a simile, though it contains neither “as” nor “like”) to clarify to someone the relationship between one of the two. As long as we understand cats’ relationship to mice, we can understand birds’ relationship to worms; as long as we understand birds’ relationship to mice, we can understand cats’ relationship to mice. Through this simple analogy, we have communicated a lot of information about the animals and their habits, and the listener can extrapolate their knowledge of one of the relationships to figure out the nature of the relationship.
So How Do We Respond To These People?
First, don’t let them take the offensive, as Joshua attempted to do by feigning stupidity, and then attempting to change the subject to whether it’s necessary to be an asshole. Their tactic is a weak, intellectually dishonest one of shifting the conversation onto their outrage (the poor little snowflakes), and it shouldn’t be allowed. At this point, there are two ways to handle the stupidity, and both need to be done. First, the metaphor needs to be fully explained. Sadly. Secondly, the person needs to be called out for acting stupid or being stupid, neither of which is acceptable for an adult. My seven-year-old nephew would understand the metaphor without somehow coming to the conclusion that we were directly comparing two things qualitatively. Have fun with these points, though, and combine the two together: explain the metaphor like you would to a five year old.
Don’t let up on this. Be ruthless. Keep in mind that this is a grown adult (and in this case, someone who fancies himself qualified to lead the national Libertarian Party!) who is pretending not to understand a basic and simple metaphor, unable to even figure out what is being compared. Reasons for doing this are complicated. The most obvious, as I said, is that doing so allows them to be outraged, which snowflakes love. But there’s more to it than that, I think–perhaps remnants of the high school attitude that it’s uncool to be smart and cool to be stupid continue on into adulthood. I know we can find examples of this on YouTube.
When Joshua went on to criticize me for being arrogant and condescending, I rightly pointed out:
Don’t obfuscate stupidity if you don’t want people to think you’re an idiot.
These are people are acting like idiots. They deserve scorn, ridicule, and shaming. We should not mock and belittle those with handicaps that prevent them from understanding simple metaphors, but that doesn’t come close to describing the bulk of these deliberate morons. Most of them aren’t stupid. They’re just pretending to be stupid (often with doublethink thrown in, because they want to convince themselves that their outrage should be directed outwardly, at Arvin, instead of inward, at their own past). For this, they should be laughed at, mocked, ridiculed, memed, shamed, and scorned. This scourge of people pretending stupid so that they can be outraged must be stopped. Our ability to communicate takes too severe of a hit if we can no longer use metaphors and analogies.
There’s a reason that Christ, the Buddha, Nietzsche, Plato, and so many other great people in human history communicated primarily in metaphors–they are unrivaled in their ability to clarify things for people. Losing the ability to use parables and metaphors so severely hinders our ability to communicate that it could very well be enough to send us into a second Dark Age. See? That’s a metaphor. It compares the dangers of the Dark Ages to the dangers posed by feigning stupidity so much that everyone becomes stupid and believes in their own stupidity. Someone responding to that with “Are you saying we’re going to experience famine?” would be appallingly moronic (another metaphor). Metaphors are extremely common.
Allowing people to be outraged because they’re getting away with pretending to be stupid will only exacerbate the problem. Why would Joshua pretend to be stupid? To be outraged. But why would he want to be outraged? What does he gain from that? Victimization. Typical of snowflake behavior (Don’t act like a snowflake if you don’t want to be called a snowflake, and being outraged over imaginary offenses is the modus operandi of snowflakes), he seeks and latches onto any possible offense he can find. It’s a way of playing the IP/MA (Identity Politics / Micro Aggressions) Game, because we reward victims so heavily and love them so much. It’s simple psychology and positive reinforcement. People see “victims” being rewarded for being victimized with adoration, “respect,” pity, and other positive things–often money and gifts, too.