If I had an archnemesis, I think it would be Outrage. As everyone who knows me can tell you, I’m a cold, heartless person by nature, so I have a hard time getting properly indignant about, say, Presidential tweets, the posture of NFL players during the national anthem (can anyone explain to me why we sing the anthem at sporting events?), or or the design of Starbucks Christmas cups. I’m not sure that makes me a hero or a villain. I suspect outrage is beneficial to people’s self-worth. Then again, it might cause a heart attack, so maybe it’s a tragic hero. Either way, I’ll play my part, fighting it to the end. And by fight, I mean completely ignore, maybe smh.
Perhaps the most headshaking form of Outrage is the misunderstanding of metaphors. There’s a whole brand of online outrage dedicated to getting upset that someone compared something favored to something disfavored or tried to explain something trivial in reference to something serious or something behavioral to something pathological. I hate it because it involves the debasement of words and figures of speech, two things I love. It can occur whenever two subjects, one perceived as good and the other as bad, are used in close proximity or said to have some related aspect. It is invariably taken as a smear, that the speaker meant that good thing was bad by association. Sometimes this is true. If you mention that Nazis held socialist policies similar to FDR’s, then you most likely are not interested in the actual comparison of policies but rather are insinuating a link between the evil character of Nazis and that of FDR’s (and current) Democrats. This is also an abuse of language and to be avoided, but it’s a mistake to take it as a universal rule, because the nature of analogies is that they compare otherwise dissimilar objects. If the objects were the same in every aspect, it would cease to be an analogy and become an equity.
Take as an example this perfectly fine Atlantic article on Louis C.K.’s return from #metoo shame. The author is an intelligent, reasonable person discussing whether the comedian should have a chance at redemption and when and how it should happen. She’s a little upset that he’s back so soon without any sort of penance, nothing unreasonable. But notice how about halfway through the article she quotes another comedian supporting C.K. by saying, “people have to be allowed to serve their time and move on with their lives,” which gets her all worked up into a bother. Can you spot the truly heinous phrase in that sentence? It’s “serve their time.” You see, that’s a reference to the penal system, and we all know that being forced out of the public sphere for 9 months is nothing like going to prison. Just in case you don’t, the author is going to spend a whole paragraph telling you why it’s such a distressing comparison. “The comedian was not incarcerated or otherwise institutionalized,” she says, which I’m not sure anyone actually claimed. Using that language “is to prioritize C.K.’s career, that precious nonhuman entity, over his victims’ healing,” of course, and even more egregious, “betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how the prison system affects the human beings it ensnares.” Umm…what?
Put aside that this phrase is a cliche, which by definition means it is said without conscious reference to the original meaning of the phrase. Let’s imagine the man very intentionally invoked the prison system in order to defend his colleague. What could he have been trying to say? The author assumes the most cynical (and illogical) interpretation possible, that he meant the comedian had actually served time in a federal penitentiary, or the equivalent of one, and that he was trying to say the punishment was extremely harsh (thereby belittling the harm done to the victim), and that he has no clue (or care) about the hardship that real inmates face in real jails. Seem fair? That’s a lot of insensitivity to pack into one cliched phrase of one tweet, but it just goes to show you how vile this comedian defending his friend truly is.
To use the author’s language, this tangential tirade betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of metaphors. In order to reach a proper understanding, we need to examine why we use such phrases and what we mean when we do so. If you were to analyze every word you said (I don’t recommend it), you would likely find such devices extremely common. Most of them are cliches that have lost their original context, phrases such as tip of the iceberg, warm welcome, loose canon, blow off steam, and hold your horses, none of which, needless to say, have anything to do with oceans, fires, artillery, steamships, or equestrians. These phrases and countless others have their own meanings because they have been so often repeated, but they began as metaphors, a way of saying that one thing is like another in some way even though it may be different in every other way. When we say illegal border crossings are only the tip of the iceberg, we mean that it’s only a small part of the whole issue, just as most of the mass of iceberg is underwater. No one imagines you are suggesting that immigrants are literally frozen chunks of ice floating through the ocean until they cross the border, nor are we saying anything about the temperatures in their home countries nor about the lethality of their interaction with cruise liners. Good thing, too, because that would clearly be a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation and probably racist too.
Intentional, or poetic, metaphors work on the same principle. A complex, often abstract object (like immigration policy) is simplified by reference to a simple, physical object (such as ice). This always involves a reduction in meaning. A complex object can never be fully described by a simple object. The simple object can, at best, aid in the understanding of the complex object. Any comparison is thus limited to that very narrow space where the two objects intersect. Such comparisons are so common because the world is full of complex, difficult to understand concepts that have no simple physical form, like computer software, like the human mind, like God. In many cases, the only way to understand these concepts is to resort to physical metaphors. It’s why we talk about computers having “files”, the mind “struggling” with a problem, and God being a “father.” It’s not because we think they are true in the complete, literal sense, but because they are ways to understand some part of the otherwise unmanageable and incomprehensible. You can read more about this in the introduction to my Masters thesis paper.
With this in mind, what was the comedian saying about Louis C.K. having “served his time”? Not that Louis C.K. had gone to jail or done anything like going to jail except that both are punishment which put you out of the way for some amount of time at the end of which you return. We don’t need to go beyond that to understand him, so we shouldn’t. We have to accept that the comparison isn’t perfect because no comparison is perfect. If we could fully understand every situation only on its own terms, there would be no need for metaphors and comparisons in the first place. But explaining (or even understanding) everything in a personal, individual way is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, and time-consuming. It ignores the plain fact that there are patterns and similarities in people and in the world and in the way people experience the world. So not only is using a comparison a faster method of explanation, tapping into the shared dictionary of life, but it also may be able to communicate more to more people than a personal, literal account, which by definition would only be fully applicable to the individual. “Served his time,” has real, if not perfect, meaning in terms of punishment to nearly everyone, while a literal account of his time away would not only require a a whole book but also an interpreter to make sense of it in his context.
Maybe you think I am unfairly parsing the author’s words in return. Her Outrage was only over the injustices in the prison system and those abused by it. Maybe you’re thinking that the words we use matter and we should use them carefully. I agree; the words we use matter, and we should use them carefully and deliberately, which is why I hate this form of Outrage the most. The author doesn’t do it with this purpose in mind, but her method of interpretation is the death of all language. It puts more weight on words than they can bear. To treat every word and phrase literally and cynically is to presume that words are physical objects with a fixed meaning and defined value. But they aren’t. Words are symbolic objects that can and do change over time and in different contexts. The combination of words and phrases is what’s important, the total expression and intent of the language. To isolate a given word is to isolate the person using it, ignoring them in order to insist on your own interpretation. Any chance of being understood comes to rely on the use of approved words, a false conformity in which less is said, even is less is understood, and individual personality and creativity are destroyed.
Yes, the author had the cause of justice in mind, but we’ve been relentlessly rooting out and annihilating certain language from our cultural discourse for decades. Has any of it produced more justice? Or has it produced more misunderstanding, more division, more discord? You can’t get rid of ideas by eliminating the words used to express them. You only make them invisible, producing hidden discontent and frustration within people who have no way to rationally understand and discuss what they may think and feel about the world.
Language is the tool we use for the internal processing of the world and the communication of it to others. It shapes the way we understand everything. This is one reason why we have to be careful with our words. But being careful about what you say is not a substitution for being careful about what you mean. The failure to understand to understand the difference is the debasement of language and therefore the destruction of our common life. If you look around, you can see we’re head down that path. We’ve started to lose our ability to communicate. We’ll end by losing our ability to think.