Friday, April 09, 2010

Metaphorical Oppression

I don't mean something "like" oppression. I mean the oppression of metaphor itself. Simply put it is a variation on the Fallacy of the False Analogy. It seems a species of behavior common in the ranks of leaders and managers, but perhaps it is true of all people frequently called upon to speak to assembled people.

A speaker should feel free to employ apt analogies, or descriptive metaphors, but for some reason these things seem to take on a life of their own. Sometimes, they simply become segues to say something else, usually banal or obvious.

Example: "To succeed, be like the turtle, don't be afraid to stick your neck out, and put your tail on the line."

By itself, this is harmless. Even cute. Of course, the turtle imagery is mostly to help you remember the thought, it doesn't really serve as an argument. I don't know if the turtle's key to success is doing those things. It might be the opposite, perhaps it is those turtles quick to "hide their heads" and "put their tails between their legs" that succeed. Still, as I said, it is harmless enough.

But some may take it further, since we ought to be so much like turtles, we can infer that we ought to "have a tough outer shell, but be soft on the inside." This is a double whammy. We should be like a turtle, AND our emotional states should resemble the physical characteristics of the turtle (I don't know how turtles' emotions shape up, perhaps they wear their hearts on their sleeves).

Now, were someone to go this far, we might forgive them. Perhaps they were poking fun at the metaphor/analogy and "milking it" for a another laugh.

But why stop there? Surely there must be other things about turtles we should emulate? Turtles are slow walking around in the world... so we should be slow when it comes to finding our way in the world of careers or love. Sea Turtles burying their eggs on the beach, then abandon them to make it on their own. So we should abandon our... um.. investments, and let them.. er... swim out into the ocean of financial uncertainty only to return to the place they were laid once they mature!

Okay. Enough.

I understand it is hard to talk in front of crowds, and really hard to inspire people to do hard work, take risks, and try to be creative. If people are not already doing that, a good speech is unlikely to make them do it. What troubles me more than having to listen to these speeches, is when people decide that it is true! The metaphor can't lie, and so we need to CHANGE and adopt the metaphor as our model.

Sometimes this can be successful. Let's use the metaphor of particles as little balls. Works great (at some levels) and is very useful to help imagine the differences between the various states of matter, etc.

But frequently, it begins as a weak metaphor, transmogrifies into a false analogy, then starts imposing itself as a model of behavior or business (or more likely for me, academic policy).

College is like a business, students are like customers. This is a classic that is not even just a metaphor or analogy, it is actually true on some levels. What the purveyors of this thought haven't quite figured out is what the product/service is that this "business" offers: entertainment? Unlike most businesses in the free market we don't generally have return customers, we only "sell" our product once, our clients don't necessary see the benefit of their purchase right away. And the customer is not always right!

That one, I am used to, and frankly, it is vague enough to just ignore. Lately though I've noticed more and more of these. Sadly my memory is not sufficient to dredge them all up.

Then there was a story about spider silk being strong, and the more silk the stronger the web, so multiple spider webs could catch more flies, and so spiders should work together and contribute to the fly catching or something. I am not sure where this came from, or how it was supposed to work, but the moral of this "story" was that I was supposed to feel better about filling out forms that served no obvious purpose and distracted me from my main work. When I tried to point out that if such a strategy were more effective, presumably the spiders would have evolved to do just that*, I was told it was just a metaphor. I can appreciate the need to get the paperwork done, but the metaphor/analogy did not make it seem more sensible.

There was another metaphor about an Energy Bus. Apparently there is a book called The Energy Bus. Okay so there is a bus, it is "going somewhere" just like your business is going somewhere. Note. Already we are deep in double metaphors. The business is not going anywhere. But you get the idea. Some people are going in the right direction, and others are on the wrong bus. They are not bad people, they are just not on the right bus. Now, what can we make of that. It is the job of the bus driver (manager/president) to "help those people off the bus." I don't know about you, but being thrown off a bus THAT IS GOING SOMEWHERE doesn't sounds very good to me. I like the idea of a bus driver showing me the right bus, and helping me get to it. But I digress. Somewhere in this bus metaphor we need to explain the contributors and non-contributors. Because, after all we want our bus to go quickly and efficiently. Note. This is not necessarily true of real life buses. When I lived in SF I would sometimes take a bus. I frequently saw a line of buses all on the same route traveling together. Rather than sit and wait for the lead bus to get a 10 minute head start, and follow one at a time with the gap. They all rode together. I guess this is because each bus driver had some incentive to be "on time" based on some fixed schedule. It would have been more sensible to allow buses to "re-stagger" in order to get back to a useful schedule where the buses came every ten or twenty minutes. But again, I digress.

The problem is buses are powered by fuel, gas, diesel or electricity, whereas the Energy Bus is fueled by "Positive Energy". The riders on a real bus contribute fares they purchase these things. So the analogy of rider contributions gets a bit muddled. I could talk about "free riders" but that doesn't really apply to everyone, especially if we want to push the idea that some people are just on the wrong bus (not bad people). And on the bus (business) we are talking about, the riders are the one who are paid by the driver, not vice versa. So again.. it might be time to GET OFF THE BUS.

Now admittedly. I did not read this book. Perhaps my second hand hearing of it (and visiting a real non-working bus and getting a bus lapel pin) may be missing some key insight, but I doubt it.

Then it gets odd. The people who don't contribute to the bus going where it is going (which I think the driver decides) are called "Energy Vampires." Because they "suck" the energy out of the bus. These are the complainers, the proverbial sticks in the mud, the people who refuse to accept change or pull their weight, etc..

Okay.. I get it, they take out energy, whereas normal riders put energy in. Wait, don't riders consume energy too? I mean the bus would be lighter without all those riders. Anyway.

Now to be fair. Energy Vampire and Energy Bus both have the word Energy in them. So perhaps I am focusing on the Bus too much and not enough on energy. Maybe the bus is just meant as something that carts the energy itself along. Except that doesn't really resemble a business or a college, or anything really.

I guess I get the idea... it is more pleasant, and potentially more effective to have positive energy, meaning happy people working for you. I am all for being happy. And if we can "fake it 'til we make it." Maybe that is okay as well. However there is nothing about a bus or a vampire that is particularly useful for discovering that idea.

And here are some potentially troublesome points.
1. If there was a bus, and it did run on positive energy, then there is a sense in which the lack of positive energy could be responsible for the bus not going where you want it to go.
If some people on the bus don't contribute energy, the bus will lack energy. And If the bus lacks energy, then it won't get to its destination.
However, it is a fallacy (affirming the consequent) (actually two such fallacies) to reason from this that:
If it doesn't get to its destination, it must lack energy, and if it lacks energy it must be because some people are contributing.
It also doesn't stand to reason that if a bus isn't getting to its destination the best solution is to remove people from the bus.

2. Just because a hypothetical bus can run on positive energy, it doesn't mean than a business or school can do so.

3. While the existence of an Energy Vampire would be scary. It doesn't follow that riders who complain or otherwise seem to generate negative energy are just sucking energy. Maybe the bus missed their stop, or the bus is going the wrong way. Again the idea that positive energy is entirely up to the disposition of the rider seems misplaced.

4. Buses are not like pirate ships which sail (roughly) at the whim of the captain. Buses have routes, and stops, and the like. They are supported by taxes (typically) and are offered as a service to the riders rather than being served by the riders.

Okay.. I almost done. But before I leave this, I want to address some bus features that were not addressed (maybe they are in the book).

A. A bus needs regular skilled maintenance to function properly. Those that service the bus need to be heeded and given the tools they need to keep the bus running smoothly.

B. A bus should be predictable and consistent. I want to know that I can leave my house at 7:40 walk down the street and catch the 8am bus. This applies as much to the cross country gray hound as the city or school bus.

C. The driver should herself answer to directions from the dispatcher, buses are not autonomous dictatorships.

Anyway. Metaphors are like the holocaust. First they came for the Jews, which are like the employees, then they came for the socialists, which are like the students, and the..

*Social spiders do exist, but they account for less than 1/1000 of spieces.


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