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    How to Block a Metaphor

    The old “class warfare” metaphor is in the news and blogosphere again, thanks to Newt Gingrich’s $250,000 Tiffany’s bill. Republicans use it every time Democrats use the “T” word. (Taxes, that is. Not tea.) Now we’re hearing Dems use it to express ire over rich folks’ Tiffany bills.

    The only thing worse than the class warfare metaphor is the number of people who fall for it. So we propose an exercise as a cure.

    Write down some random nouns. Choose one. Now swap it for a political metaphor. Suppose your chosen word is carrot.  

    Politician: The Democrats are waging class warfare.

    You: The Democrats are really waging a class carrot. 

    Now try to justify your strange choice. Some people may not like carrots, but they’re good for us. You have to uproot things to get a carrot. Taxes are like carrot seeds—their goodness is hidden at first. And so on. Now, what if your word was planet? Or box-top? Or gumboil?

    So what’s the point of this exercise? To show how easily justified—and equally silly—most political metaphors are. Imposing taxes on the rich are indeed like waging war, in small, trivial respects. But the policy is equally like a carrot. Or a box-top. And not like any of these things.

    Every kid should be taught this inoculation technique. It’ll lead to a less gullible electorate.

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    Reader Comments (3)

    Hmm. Rather than a metaphor, I'd thought "class warfare" was simply an emotionally charged or exaggerated version of the more precise (and less persuasive) term "class conflict."

    What am I missing?
    June 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichael
    Actually, I'm not sure how much class conflict there actually is in this country. Political conflict, definitely; but there's been little fallout from the huge shift of wealth from the middle class to the wealthiest .1%.

    So now ask yourself: If we weren't talking about metaphors, and I asked you to describe what "war" means to you, would you describe anything close to a tax policy?

    Economic policy and actual war do share similarities, but they're not the same thing. When someone claims that two different things are the same thing, they're probably using a metaphor.

    Make sense?
    June 23, 2011 | Registered CommenterFigaro
    Thank you for replying, Figaro. I've learned a lot from your "Thank You for Arguing" and continue to learn and I must credit your rhetorical insight for helping move my 10 year marriage to a much better place. I hope you'll be patient with me.

    I think understand what you are saying, but it's not sitting quite right and I'm not sure why. I'll take a shot:

    I think you are saying something like: "War" does not even remotely equate to "tax policy," therefore it's a metaphor. So we could substitute "carrot" for warfare and be just as valid.

    Seems like a false choice, to me. You substitute your "tax policy" for my "conflict".

    Would you say "Conflict" does not equal "warfare" and therefore, warfare is a metaphor? I think the two are similar enough. The difference is in the degree and emotional content. Maybe that's why it has been effective.

    To a Marxist, "class" might mean bourgeoisie/proletariat. To a Libertarian, it might mean Producers/non-producers. To a Tea Partier, Govt/non-govt.

    If you asked me what "war" means to me, while my imagery would be something like a clip from Desert Storm or Vietnam, I would say I think of tactical and strategic aggression, winning and losing, casualties, etc., much the way I might speak of economic warfare, cyber warfare, conventional warfare, etc.,

    Liberals may see class warfare in things like union-busting, laws facilitating that migration of wealth from middle to upper class, "resistance" to single-payer health care, etc. Tea Partiers may see class warfare the expansion of govt and taxes at the cost of freedom and rule of law. Libertarians, the expansion of govt and welfare non-producers at the expense of producers.

    Democrats will jump on Mr. Gingrich as evil/rich/uncaring Republican. Republicans will hear "rich" and think "class envy card being played here in Democratic rhetoric" and cry "Class warfare!"

    Maybe you're right - all these terms are so ill-defined, they really mean whatever the reader/listener wants them to. What's the rhetorical term for a word or expression that sounds real enough, but works because allows the reader to project meaning?

    June 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichael

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