July 6th, 2011 // 9:40 am @ Oliver DeMille
One reason freedom is threatened with serious decline in our time is that metaphor is often missing among those who love liberty.
Our modern educational system has taught most of us to focus on the literal, to separate the fields of knowledge, to learn topics as if they are fundamentally detached from each other, and to build areas of expertise and career around disconnected specialties.
We are even encouraged to separate the various parts of our life—not only math class from English class or gym from history, but also school from family, work from private lives, spouse from child relationships, family from friend relationships, religion from politics, career from entertainment.
Most children and parents leave home in the morning to spend time at school, work and other separate activities—ultimately spending less time with each other than with people outside the family. Anything less than such separation of the various parts of our lives is considered unhealthy by many experts.
Thus it is not surprising that the use of metaphor is often missed in our modern world. We seem to be a nation of literalists now. We understand allegory, comparison, contrast, simile and even imagery, as long as the comparisons are patently apparent or clearly spelled out. Metaphor?—not so much.
There are many exceptions to this, of course, but such literalism is increasingly the norm. Symbol is and will always be important, but the artistic, understated, abstract and poetic is out of vogue in many circles that promote freedom.
Stay Out of Politics
Consider, for example, the way some conservative radio talk-show hosts rant against Hollywood actors or best-selling singers speaking out on political themes. The argument in such cases usually centers on the idea that actors/performers have no business opining on political topics—that, in fact, they know little about such things and should stick to their areas of expertise.
At one level, this assumes that the actors’ roles as citizens are trumped by their careers. Ironically, such talk-show hosts usually give great credence to the voices of regular citizens as part of their daily fare—as long as the citizens tend to agree with the host. Likewise, such hosts frequently seek credibility by bringing like-minded celebrities to their show. Note that this is a favorite tact of media in general—television as well as radio, liberal as well as conservative.
At another level, the idea that actors or other artists are simply entertainers rather than vitally important social commentators misses the deep reality of the historical role of art. Artists are as important to social-political-economic commentary as journalists, scientists, the professorate, clergymen, economists, the political parties or other public policy professionals.
Napoleon is sometimes credited with saying that if he could control the music or story-telling of the nation he would happily let the rest of the media print what it wanted: “A picture is worth a thousand words.” (Or more literally, “a good sketch is better than a long speech.”)
Those who think artists are, or should be, irrelevant to the Great Conversation might consider such artists as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Nietzsche, Goya, Picasso, Goethe, Ayn Rand, C.S. Lewis or George Orwell. Can one really argue that Ronald Reagan, Charleston Heston, Tina Fey, Jon Stewart, Aaron Sorkin or the writers of Law and Order have had only a minor impact on society and government?
Artists should have a say on governance–first because all citizens should have a say, and second because the fundamental role of the artist is not to entertain (this is a secondary goal) but to use art to comment on society and seek to improve it where possible. The problem with celebrity, some would argue, is that many times the public gives more credence to artists than to others who really do understand an issue better. This is a legitimate argument, but it tends to support media types rather than the citizenry.
Early American Art
On an even deeper level, art is not just the arena of artists. Tocqueville found it interesting that in early America there were few celebrity artists– but that most of the citizens personally took part in artistic endeavors and tended to think artistically.
Another way to say this is that they thought metaphorically in the broad sense:
- They clearly saw the connections between fields of knowledge and the application of ideas in one arena to many others
- They understood the interrelations of disparate ideas without having to literally spell things out
- They immediately applied the stories and lessons of history, art and literature to current challenges
Another major characteristic Tocqueville noted in early American culture was its entrepreneurial spirit, initiative, ingenuity and widespread leadership—especially in the colonial North and West, but not nearly so much in the brutal, aristocratic, slave-culture South of the 1830s.
Freedom and entrepreneurialism are natural allies, as are creative, metaphorical thinking and effective initiative and wise risk-taking.
I’ve already written about the great on-going modern battle between innovation and conformity (“The Clash of Two Cultures”), which could be called metaphorical thinking versus rote literalism:
In far too many cases, we kill the human spirit with rules of bureaucratic conformity and then lament the lack of creativity, innovation, initiative and growth. We are angry with companies which take jobs abroad, but refuse to become the kind of employees that would guarantee their stay. We beg our political leaders to fix things, but don’t take initiative to build enough entrepreneurial solutions that are profitable and impactful.
The future belongs to those who buck these trends. These are the innovators, the entrepreneurs, the creators, what Chris Brady has called the Rascals. We need more of them. Of course, not every innovation works and not every entrepreneur succeeds, but without more of them our society will surely decline. Listening to some politicians in Washington, from both parties, it would appear we are on the verge of a new era of conformity: “Better regulations will fix everything,” they affirm.
The opposite is true. Unless we create and embrace a new era of innovation, we will watch American power decline along with numbers of people employed and the prosperity of our middle and lower classes. So next time your son, daughter, employee or colleague comes to you with an exciting idea or innovation, bite your tongue before you snap them back to conformity.
Innovation vs. Conformity
Metaphor gets to the root of this war between innovation and conformity. The habit of thinking in creative, new and imaginative ways is central to being inventive, resourceful and innovative.
Note that all of these words are synonyms of “productive” and ultimately of “progressive.” If we want progress, we must have innovation, and innovation requires imagination. Few things spark creativity, imagination or inspiration like metaphor.
If we want to see a significant increase in freedom in the long term, we’ll first need to witness a resurrection of metaphorical thinking. This is one reason the great classics are vital to the education of free people. The classics were mostly written by authors who read widely and thought deeply about many topics, and even more importantly most readers of classics study beyond narrow academic divisions of knowledge and apply ideas across the board.
In contrast, modern movie and television watchers, fantasy novel or technical manual readers, and internet surfers don’t tend to routinely correlate the messages of entertainment into their daily careers. There are certainly deep, profound, classic-worthy ideas in our contemporary movies, novels, and online. But only a few of the customers watch, read or surf in the classic way—consistently seeking lessons and wisdom to be applied to serious personal and world challenges.
Only a few moderns end each day’s activities with correspondence and debate about the movies, books and websites they’ve experienced with other deep-thinking readers who have “studied” the same sources. Facebook can be used in this way, but it seldom is.
Alvin Toffler called this the “Information Age” rather than the Wisdom Age for this reason—we have so much information at our fingertips, but too little wise discussion of applicable ideas. As Allan Bloom put it in The Closing of the American Mind, people don’t think together as much they used to. Even formal students in most classes engage less in open dialogue and debate than in passive note-taking and solitary memorizing.
All of this is connected with the decline of metaphorical thinking. The point of education in the old Oxford model of learning (read great classics, discuss the great works with tutors who have read them many times and also with other students who are new to the books, show your proficiency in creative thinking in front of oral boards of questioners) was to teach deep, broad, effective metaphorical thinking.
Such skills could accurately be called leadership thinking, and generations of Americans followed the same model (until the late 1930s) of reading and deeply discussing the greatest works of mankind in all fields of knowledge. Note that thinking in metaphor naturally includes literal thinking– but not vice versa.
This style of learning centered on the student’s ability to see through the literal and understand all the potential hidden, deeper, abstract, correlated and metaphorical meanings in things. Such education trained people to think through—and see through—the promises, policies and proposals of their elected officials, expert economists, and other specialists, and to make the final decisions as a wise electorate not prone to fads, media spin or partisan propaganda.
A New Monument
As a society understands metaphor, it understands politics. This is a truism worth chiseling into marble. When the upper class understands metaphor while the masses require literality, freedom declines.
The surest way to understand metaphor is to read literature and history and think about it deeply, especially about how it applies to modern realities (which is why classrooms were once dedicated to discussion about important books, as mentioned above).
This is why the university phrase “I majored in literature, science, or history” is a middle-class expression while the upper class prefers to say, “I read literature, science, or history at X University.”
The differences here are striking: the upper class never believes it has actually “majored” a topic, while the middle class can seldom claim to have seriously “read” all the great works in any important academic field.
This fundamental difference in education remains a cause of the widening gap between upper and middle class. Indeed, education is a major determining factor of the contemporary (and historical) class divide. It is the ability to think metaphorically (to in fact consider everything both literally and metaphorically) and to automatically seek out and consider the various potential meanings of all things, that most separates the culture of the “haves” from the global “have-nots.”
The Ideology Barrier
In politics, the far left and far right—including, most notably right now, the environmental movement and the tea parties—significantly limit their own growth by staying too literal.
This comes across to most Americans as ineffectively rigid, intolerant, naïve, and even ideological.
The fact that most environmentalists and tea partiers are genuinely passionate and sincere is not a plus in the eyes of many people as long as such activists are seen to be humorless and even angry.
Such activists may not in fact be humorless and angry, but when they seem to be these things, they diminish their ability to build rapport with anyone that does not already understand their point of view.
Feminism once carried these same negatives, but recently gained more mainstream understanding once feminist thinkers moved past literality and used art and entertainment to gain positive support. The gay-lesbian community made the same transition in the past two decades, and environmentalism is starting to make this shift as well (witness the recent hubbub over Cars III).
Whether you agree or disagree with these political movements is not the point; they gain mainstream support by portraying themselves as relaxed, happy, caring and likeable people, and by sharing their principles by telling a story.
False Starts, or, Failed Expectations
President Bush attempted to effect such a change in the Republican Party with his emphasis on Compassionate Conservatism, but this theme disappeared after 9/11.
President Obama exuded this relaxed optimism through the 2008 campaign and several months into his presidency, becoming a symbol of change and leadership to America’s youth (who hadn’t had a real political hero since Ronald Reagan). The president’s cult-hero status disappeared when the Obama Administration’s literality (not liberality) was eventually interpreted as robotic, smug and even defensive.
The White House’s big-spending agenda in 2009-2010, coming on the heels of over seven years of Republican-led overspending, sparked a tea party revolt. It also drove most independents to the right, not because they supported right-wing policies but rather because independents tend to understand metaphor: they saw that the Obama agenda was primarily about bigger government and only secondarily about real change.
To put this as literally as possible, President Obama desired lasting change in Washington, but he cared even more about certain policies which required massive government spending.
There are true supporters of real freedom on all sides of the political table: Democratic, Republican, independent, blue, red, green, tea party, etc. They would all do well to spread deep, quality, creative, artistic and metaphorical thinking in our society.
As Lord Brougham taught:
“Education makes a people easy to lead, but difficult to drive; easy to govern, but impossible to enslave.”
He was speaking not of modern specialized job training but of reading the greatest books of mankind. Leaders are readers, and so are free nations.
Symbolism, Nuance and the Deficits of Literalism
As long as metaphor is missing in our dialogue—not to mention much in our prevailing educational offerings—the people will be continually frustrated by their political leaders.
Campaigns succeed through symbolism, especially metaphor, while daily governance naturally requires a major dose of literalism. Sometimes a significant crisis swings the nation into a period of metaphor, but this mood seldom lasts much longer than the crisis itself.
The most effective leaders (e.g. Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, the Roosevelts and Reagan) are able to communicate a metaphor of American grand purpose even while they govern literally. For example, the Jeffersonian “era” lasted for decades beyond his term of office, building on the American mind captured by the metaphor of freedom; John Adams’ literalism hardly carried him through his one term.
While some of this is the responsibility of the leader, it is ultimately the duty of the people to think in metaphor and understand the big themes and hidden nuances behind government proposals and policies.
In this regard, groups such as environmentalists and tea parties seem to really understand the major trends and are courageously making their voice heard. Unfortunately for their goals, they have yet to effectively present their messages using metaphor. People tend to see them, as mentioned above, as humorless, angry and ideologically rigid.
The irony is rich, because most Americans actually support both a higher level of environmental consciousness and a major increase of government fiscal responsibility. In literal terms, many Americans agree with a large number of green and tea party proposals even as they say they dislike the “environmentalists” and the “tea parties.”
Again, the problem is that these groups tend to emphasize only the literal.
Such examples may be interesting, but the real problem for the future of American freedom is a populace that doesn’t naturally think through everything in a metaphorical way.
A free society only stays as free—and as prosperous—as its electorate allows.
When a nation has been educated to separate its thinking, it tends to be easily swayed by an upper class that understands and uses metaphor—in politics, economics, marketing, media, and numerous walks of life. It becomes subtly enslaved to experts, because, quite simply, it believes what the experts say.
Alternate Timeline of Literalism
If the American founding generation had so believed the experts, it would have stuck with Britain, would never have bothered reading the Federalist Papers, and would have left governance to the upper class.
The capitol would probably be New York City, and the middle class would have remained small. We would be a more aristocratic society, with an entirely different set of laws for the wealthy than the rest.
Such forays into theoretical history are hardly provable, but one thing is clear: American greatness is soundly based on a citizenry that thought independently, creatively, innovatively and metaphorically. The educational system encouraged such thinking, and adult discourse continued it throughout the citizen’s life.
Great education teaches one to listen to the experts, and to then take one’s own counsel on the important decisions.
Indeed, such education prepares the adult to weigh the words of experts and all other sources of knowledge and then to choose wisely.
Sit in chair; open book. Read.
Metaphor matters. Metaphorical thinking is vital to freedom. The classics are the richest vein of metaphorical and literal thinking.
Every nation that has maintained real freedom has been a nation of readers—readers of the great books. Freedom is in decline precisely because reading the great classics is in decline. Fortunately, every regular citizen can easily do something to fix this problem.
The books are on our shelves.
For more on this topic, listen to “The Freedom Crisis.”
Click here for details >>
He is the co-author of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestseller LeaderShift, and author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, and The Coming Aristocracy: Education & the Future of Freedom.
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.