On the morning of January 8, a young man flagged down a cab. Bald and dressed in a black hoodie, he was unremarkable, even making casual small talk with the cabbie. He was a community college dropout. A musician. An Eddie Bauer employee. In his spare time, he had experimented with drugs, posted some YouTube videos and volunteered at an animal shelter. His destination was just five miles away, at a Safeway supermarket plaza. When the cab finally arrived, he handed the cabbie a $20 bill for the $14.25 ride. The two walked into the supermarket for change. After leaving the cabbie a small tip, he entered the supermarket plaza. Only then did the seemingly ordinary, unremarkable young man do something so devastating and shocking that his name would echo through households across the country, becoming the focal point for a national discussion on gun laws, mental illness, and political rhetoric. For it was on that morning in Tucson, Arizona that Jared Lee Loughner, 22, killed six people — among them a 9-year-old girl and federal judge — and critically wounded a host of others, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords M.A. ‘96 (D-Ariz.).
In the aftermath of the shooting, there was much speculation about whether “violent political rhetoric” had contributed to Loughner’s actions. As Marty Kaplan wrote in The Huffington Post, such “lock and load/” “take up your arms” political rhetoric did not intentionally or directly incite Loughner’s actions. However, Kaplan argues that this rhetoric was more than just “an overheated metaphor,” that the rhetoric and metaphors shape our conceptuality, creating a toxic and limiting thought process.
In constructing a metaphor, two concepts are arranged hierarchically, framing the abstract in terms of the literal. Just think of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18,” where he famously compares his lover to a summer’s day. Throughout the poem, the love Shakespeare describes — an abstract, complex concept — takes on the characteristics of summer, something sensual and concrete. As this comparison illustrates, metaphors allow us to understand the conceptual in terms of the sensory, the tangible, the concrete. Poetic language, art, music and theatre derive their power precisely because they help us relate to the abstract.
In a nutshell, President Obama’s Tucson speech was effective because he personalized an abstract tragedy through metaphor. He portrayed those killed and wounded not as anonymous victims but as “part of our family, an American family 300 million strong.” And while Obama’s metaphor may have united a nation in healing, metaphors have historically had sinister applications as well. A master of rhetoric and oratory, Adolf Hitler used metaphors to promote state unity, even crafting metaphors of the animal kingdom to promote ideas of racial hierarchy. Perhaps most ominously, Hitler portrayed the Jews and other “inferior” peoples as an “illness” preying on the German body in Mein Kamp.
Ultimately, as Kaplan put it, the dangers of metaphors lie in their tendencies to “dumb down democracy.” Fundamentally, metaphors are distortions of larger truths: second renderings that capture kernels of truth but leave out much else. They are reductions of something complex, vibrant, and dynamic — be it an idea or a group of people — into something comprehensible, something far too simple to be entirely true, something part true and part false.
Consider one final example, this one from a famous speech: “[N]ow is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.”
It is a metaphor that simplifies a nation’s struggles to vestibular and tactile sensations. Although the metaphor works on a symbolic level, racial injustice is not a quicksand — not literally. Whether metaphors like this one are mostly true or untrue depends on your vantage point. Maybe Hitler’s metaphor is mostly untrue. Maybe Obama’s metaphor and Shakespeare’s metaphor are mostly true. Maybe that image is mostly true, this piece of writing mostly untrue. Maybe the majority saw recent political rhetoric as mostly untrue, but Jared Loughner saw it as mostly true.
Maybe hindsight makes the above metaphor look mostly true. But it takes just one person to see it as mostly untrue, one person to punctuate a metaphor with blood:
On the morning of April 2 many years ago, a man neither young nor old packed his bags and hopped in his Mustang. With his dark, wavy hair and squinted eyes, he was unremarkable, just another guy from a poor family in Illinois. He was a high school dropout. A war veteran. He had served time for robbery and mail fraud. In his spare time, he went to bartending school, took dance lessons, and volunteered for George Wallace’s presidential campaign. His destination was far away — in another state entirely. When he finally arrived, he rented a room downtown. He waited. Two days had passed since he had left Atlanta. As he peered beyond a bathroom window at the motel across the street, the sun was beginning to descend on this spring evening of 1968 in Memphis. Only then did the seemingly ordinary, unremarkable James Earl Ray, 40, send a single bullet through the throat of Martin Luther King, Jr.