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Metaphor Project (Explanations)

Opportunity: Reframing problems as metaphors

Metaphor Project

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It is useful to challenge the thinking trap of "problem-solving". The approach to problems may then be reframed by asking what a problem is "trying to tell us" -- or, better still, is the problem as understood in effect a metaphor for something we would prefer not to understand? From this perspective "institutionalized" problems may in effect be a sort of metaphorical euphemism -- a package which it is better not to unwrap. Problems are not only nasty in themselves, they are also nasty in what they imply about ourselves -- however saintly we might wish to appear as disinterested change agents, victims or innocent bystanders. Consider the following:

1. Substance abuse (including drugs and alcohol)

Is it too trite to suggest that substance abuse is signalling a desperate need for different modes of thinking, feeling and experience than those sanctioned by a society governed by antiquated thinking patterns which have been only too effectively institutionalized in "acceptable" modes of work and leisure? Again, since many in key positions in such institutions also use drugs or alcohol "to relax", what should be learnt from the level of stress -- and schizophrenia -- at which the prevailing mode of thought is requiring them to function? Is substance abuse not effectively offering a remedy for the imaginal deficiency and mechanistic patterning characteristic of "acceptable" individual and collective behaviour? And consequently would not substance abuse become less necessary if society acknowledged more imaginative opportunities? What is the incidence of substance abuse in cultures whose languages make very extensive use of metaphor? Too what extent is it useful to perceive our relation to the prevailing thinking pattern as a form of "addiction" -- a habit that we do not know how to kick?

2. Unemployment (including underemployment and absenteeism)

It is no longer fruitful to argue that a significant proportion of unemployment is simply due to laziness, reluctance to learn new skills, lack of initiative or lack of opportunities. Is it possible that the prevailing mode of thinking is inhibiting peoples ability to imagine new forms of action of value to others, encouraging people to perceive existing employment opportunities as worthless both to themselves and to others, as well as impoverishing the manner in which people consider what to do with their lives? Is unemployment telling us that much of the work on offer is not worth doing -- and that much which is done is pointless? This would certainly be consistent with many criticisms of the consumer society and of industrial exploitation of the environment. Perhaps it is also saying that what we value doing, or are obliged to do, is not appropriately valued (as "work") in an economic system governed by an inadequate mode of thinking. This would certainly be consistent with the debate about the economic value of housework. Contrasting employment with recreation (as opposed to unemployment) is somewhat ironic in that unimaginative leisure opportunities are increasingly incapable of offering "re-creation". Is the level of unemployment also indicating that we really do not know to what society could usefully devote its human resources? Worse still, is it indicating that we have dissociated the challenges to human society from opportunities for "work" because of the way such challenges are perceived within the prevailing pattern of thinking?

3. Ignorance (including functional illiteracy)

Is the level of ignorance, even in industrialized countries, telling us that much of the knowledge on which that judgement is based is not worth learning? This concern has certainly been expressed in debates about existing curricula. Is it suggesting that for their psychic survival people are educating themselves along pathways that are not considered meaningful, or indicative of intelligence, within the prevailing pattern of thinking? This is suggested by the immense resources devoted to music and to "alternative" therapies and belief systems. Is it suggesting that people feel deprived of an imaginal education, faced with the formal (even rote) learning so frequently considered most appropriate (especially "to the needs of industry")? This is suggested by the enthusiasm for graphics, cartoon books, science fiction, fantasy and the archetypal portrayal of cult figures in music. Is our concern with the ignorance of many concealing the fact that those with most expertise and power are really quite ignorant about how to navigate through current and future crises?

4. Homelessness

Is the lack of appropriate shelter, even in industrialized countries, indicating that with our current pattern of thinking we are ineffective in our ability to provide, construct, or acquire cognitive and affective frameworks to shelter us appropriately from the turbulence of the times? This would be consistent with concerns about alienation in modern society. It would also follow from the recognition that many traditional frameworks and belief systems have been torn down or discredited. Even where people are well sheltered, it is often in houses or apartments that reflect an impoverishment of architectural imagination as reinforced by unimaginative building regulations and construction economics. Are our imaginative lives so impoverished by the media that the ability to provide a hospitable "interior decoration" for our psyches has been degraded?

5. Illness

Disease as a metaphor has been explored, especially by Susan Sontag. Nevertheless the preoccupation of the World Health Organization with "Heath for all by the Year 2000" fails to address the increasing prevalence of stress, neurosis and personality disorder -- especially in industrialized countries. Just as the range of individual diseases provides admirable metaphors for a taxonomic study of the world problematique, so it might also be used to explore the diseases of the imagination and of imaginal deficiency.

6. Hunger (including malnutrition)

At the time of writing some 4 million people are threatened with death by starvation in Ethiopia alone. Is this problem not signalling the existence of a subtler and more widespread form of deprivation -- a malnutrition of the psyche and a spiritual hunger which we are even less capable of addressing? This would be consistent with concern about the artificiality and superficiality of experience offered in the emerging "information society" or "global village" -- and with the desperate attempts to increase the level of "realism" by increasing the quantity and degrading quality of violence portrayed in the media. To what extent are our imaginations appropriately nourished at this time -- despite the surfeit of imaginative material available.?

7. Wastage (including environmental degradation)

Is our insensitivity to the processes of wastage and pollution, for which we are individually responsible, signalling the existence of an indifference to the "salubrity" of our imaginative lives? This would be consistent with the concern expressed by some non-western cultures and constituencies at the indifference to "spiritual purity". There is little consensus on what is or is not healthy for the psyche -- just as we are no longer clear, with the increasing scope of pollution, to what extent which foodstuffs are safe. The depletion of natural resources associated with wastage calls for reflection on the possibility that western-inspired culture is depleting its psychic resources in ways that we have yet to understand? Can the imaginative resources of a culture be depleted to a point of "bankruptcy" and how can such resources be conserved and "recycled"? Do empires fall through imaginative failure?

8. Corruption (including crime)

A major criticism of the development aid process is that the resources are diverted away from those most in need, despite agreements to prevent this. Various forms of bribery or "commission" are a common feature, even in industrialized countries. In any position (including intergovernmental agencies), people endeavour to obtain perks and privileges for themselves, for relatives or for friends -- whether this is limited to pilferage of office supplies, extended into the imposition of a "socially acceptable taxation" (or "sweetener") on any transactions which they control, or developed into a full-blown criminal activity. What can be learnt from this degree of self-interest and the associated rule-breaking propensity? Is this an indication that people cannot survive within the mechanistic regulations which emerge from the current pattern of thinking -- or at least choose not to do so, and feel free not to do so when possible? This would be consistent with the admiration for people who can get things done despite the rules, because they are capable of imagining more subtle opportunities. To what extent is corruption associated with a more creative world view -- as reflected in the term "creative accounting"?


From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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