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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Metaphor Abuse Detection

Samuel Huntington, in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, tries to make the case the Turkey is a "torn nation," stuck between two civilizations, "the West" and "Islam." I don't wish to dispute Huntington's case here -- for one thing, I just don't know that much about Turkey. But I do wish to dispute a piece of "evidence" he cites for his case. He writes:
President Suleyman Demirel similarly called Turkey "a very significant bridge in a region extending from west to east, that is from Europe to China." A bridge, however, is an artificial creation connecting two solid entities but is part of neither. When Turkey's leaders term their country a bridge, they euphemistically confirm that it is torn.
Eegads, that is awful! First of all, a metaphor is meant to highlight one or a small group of similarities between two different things. It is entirely illegitimate to move from the implied comparison to assert other similarities, unless the property highlighted in the metaphor logically entails the property one wishes to assert. For instance, let's say Bob Murphy writes, "I am as loyal and courageous as a St. Bernard." It would be nonsense for me to write, "By saying this, Bob euphemistically confirms that he is covered in shaggy, smelly fur and eats directly from a bowl sitting on the floor." (Both of those things happen to be true, but it is invalid for me to assert them because of Bob's use of that metaphor.) What the Turks wished to assert is that their country linked European, Arab, and Turkic cultures, not that it is under great strain or about to collapse into the Black Sea. Why not claim that the use of this metaphor confirms that Turkey is divided into well-marked traffic lanes, as are most modern bridges, or that it is probably constructed from steel and concrete?

OK, secondly, "being torn," the property Huntington's wishes to assert because of Turks use of the bridge metaphor, is not even a general property of bridges! I use about twenty or thirty bridges a week, I'd guess, and not one of them is torn. What's more, bridges are not always artificial -- think of the "land bridge" American Indians crossed to enter the New World -- nor are artificial bridges always fragile -- on this point, consider Tyre, which used to be an island, until Alexander the Great, in order to take the city, built a causeway which has seemingly permanently connected the city to the mainland.

So Huntington's argument fails in multiple ways... probably in every way except as a piece of propaganda planting the notion, "Don't trust Turkey!"

1 comment:

  1. Bridges also run both ways. So when Bill Clinton spoke of "building a bridge to the 21st Century," he was also saying he wanted to enable 21st-Century Americans to escape into their own past, should the need arise.

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