Challenge: Transcending the "switch" metaphor
Metaphor Project |
1. Limitations of dualistic thinking
Much has been said in recent years about the inappropriateness of conventional
western mind-sets in responding to the complexities of the environment.
Particular criticism has focused on "dualistic" and "linear" thinking.
"Holistic" approaches are advocated as more desirable alternatives, but
unfortunately without any insights into the practicalities of their implementation.
Metaphor may be helpful in this respect.
2. Implicit "switch"' metaphor
Consider the implicit switch metaphor that governs much of our thinking
concerning major problems of society:
3. Policy-making and the "switch "metaphor
unemployment: an individual has a job, or does not have a job.
ignorance: an individual is educated, or is uneducated.
violence: an individual is subject to violence, or is not.
illegality and criminality: an individual is acting illegally, or is not.
illness: an individual is healthy, or is not.
corruption: an individual is corrupt, or is not.
uncleanliness: an individual is unhygienic, or is not.
discrimination: an individual is subject to discrimination, or is not.
environmental exploitation: an individual wastes resources and degrades
the environment, or does not.
substance abuse: an individual is addicted to drugs (over-eating, smoking,
alcohol, etc), or is not.
Many advocated policies are explicitly designed to "switch" individuals
from one condition to the other in each case (e.g. from "on" to "off")
-- from an undesirable condition to a desirable one. And once such a transition
has been accomplished, the object is to prevent backsliding into the undesirable
condition. The switch metaphor is a simple device through which ambiguity
can be avoided (D N Levine, The Flight from Ambiguity, 1985).
Ironically this switch metaphor is also implicit in the thinking of
those who identify most closely with a holistic, non-linear, appropriate
and sustainable alternative. For them it is a question of how to switch
from the inappropriate to the appropriate -- and stay there.
It would be a mistake to consider that this metaphor is "just a way
of thinking" without any concrete implications. Much legislation is designed
around whether a person is in Condition A or Condition B of some such switch,
with immediate consequences in terms of social security benefits, various
forms of aid, and varieties of social sanction. An extreme example, the
apartheid policy in South Africa distinguishing between "white" and "non-white",
became administratively feasible following a seemingly innocent census
in which people were requested to identify their "racial group".
4. Ambiguity and limitations of the "switch" metaphor
It is important to recognize the extent to which this switch metaphor
is natural to western modes of thinking. It is debateable how meaningful
such polarities are in other cultures, or within many sub-cultures of western
societies (Maruyama 1980, Hofstede 1980). Indications of this are to be
found in the ambiguity of attitudes towards corruption in non-western society
-- and even in western society. If comprehension of the issue is more complex
than that implied by the switch metaphor, and if the dynamics associated
with each problem dimension call for a more complex description, then unquestioning
use of the switch metaphor constitutes a real danger at this time (Judge,
Individuals and groups escape into ambiguity to capture the wider reality
on which the options of the switch metaphor have been imposed. There are
obviously more degrees of freedom than are implied by the switch metaphor.
People have direct experience of those opportunities even though they may
be poorly articulated into sets of categories.
5. "Smoking" as a metaphor of experiential ambiguity
The issue of smoking is an extremely valuable illustration of many dimensions
of individual and collective response to the challenges of these times.
It is a neat metaphor of the experiential ambiguities in discovering a
more appropriate relationship to these challenges. It is especially valuable
because it offers us a framework within which to discuss much more charged
or controversial issues such as overpopulation and environmental degradation.
as an illustration of switch thinking in public policy -- legislation on
smoking vs. not-smoking (and ways of circumventing such restrictions in
restaurants and the workplace)
as a major source of tax revenue for governments -- can governments afford
to recommend against it
the struggle of the individual -- whether to smoke, how often to smoke,
whether to "stop"
the fashionable image of smoking -- macho, cool, sophisticated, a shared
experience, low-key bonding, etc
the health aspect -- the risk of lung cancer against the challenge of gaining
as a stimulant and tranquillizer -- what alternatives are available for
as a means of self-assertion -- imposing a style and subjecting others
to its waste products; revolting against parental and other authorities
Using this metaphor, it is much easier -- especially for smokers -- to
understand the ambiguity of governments and industrialists in restraining
their exploitation of the environment. For industrialists "sustainable
development" then lends itself to other interpretations far from those
of conservationists, for example "sustainable competitive advantage". It
is not simply a matter of the inherent logic of switching from unsustainable
policies to sustainable ones. The assumption that industrialists will willingly
espouse environmentally-friendly sustainable policies seems extremely naive
in this light, even when all the arguments are clearly evident -- as the
partial results of "health warnings" to smokers illustrate. Can any smoker
genuinely expect industry to stop air pollution through smokestacks ?
6. Transcending the "switch" metaphor
In the light of the above arguments it should be possible to look anew
at many of the conventional problems with which people are obliged to deal
personally. This process should be legitimated by the probability of detecting
forms of response by individuals which are not captured by the categories
that the switch metaphor reinforces. The existence of additional categories,
however confusedly they are currently understood, would then call for richer,
and less mechanistic, metaphors to capture the relationship between them.
The issue is, as Mark Twain succinctly put it, "If your only tool
is a hammer, then all problems look like nails". The principal tool
of the international community would appear to be the switch.
From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential