Work Those Metaphors!

And, while we’re on the subject, we really need to start interrogating our metaphors. Discussing complaints that men’s fiction is overlooked, Sam Byers asks, “Is this about the dominant culture reasserting itself when it feels under threat?” (1)Of course, I understand that he is trying to avoid making personal accusations, but what does this personification of culture actually mean? How could a “dominant culture” genuinely feel under threat? How could it, really, make the decision to reassert itself? It isn’t a real, thinking creature. 

The purpose of similes and metaphors is to smuggle associations into a discourse that the speaker hopes will reinforce their points.(2) In this case Mr Byers wants us to see men who feel neglected as the reverse: the privileged trying to protect their privilege. That’s quite a leap, if you think about it. 

And the looser the connection between your metaphor and the reality it’s supposed to be rooted in, the more likely it is that the whole argument will go off the rails, become a strange rarefied disagreement over competing narratives. Which is fine until you try to implement the ideas you’ve thus come up with, or set the internet dogs on your opponents. (“Cry Havoc! And let slip the dogs of war.”)

Is it sensible to make decisions about what we ought to do or not to do based on such a simplistic fairy story of despotic dragons reasserting themselves when they feel under threat, and righteous dragon-slayers mercilessly destroying the faceless minions of the patriarchal beast? Is it fair to condemn people for failing to conform to a narrative that is disconnected from reality, anyway? Typical of a novelist, I suppose!

But I have a serious point, here, that applies equally to social theorists, whose theses often have a metaphoric quality: imposing a fanciful story on the facts, discarding any you find inconvenient, will not bring you to truth and justice. And our primary commitment must be to Truth and Justice. Yes, they are elusive, but that means we must strive all the harder to reach them, because they do exist. You must not cling to your favourite narrative because it all fits together neatly, or is versatile and can be applied to pretty much everything (Marxism!) and you understand it, and it exonerates you. If the story doesn’t fit the facts, if you need to ignore or deny or alter facts to make it work, then your narrative is not the truth. 

Ok, this is self-evident, but I fear our loyalty to truth and justice is genuinely waning. I picked up Emma Dabiri’s What White People Can Do Next (Penguin, 2021) in my local bookshop yesterday, and flicking through it, came immediately on a sentence about Ireland being “a former colony of the British Empire…” Now, this may seem a small thing to you, but I’m from Ireland, too, and studied Irish history at school, and have read extensively on the subject since, and I’m pretty sure Ireland was never a colony. Yes, Irish people were persecuted and discriminated against, yes, good loyal Elizabethan protestants were settled on Irish land in attempt to pacify it, but I think it was always an integrated part of the United Kingdom, up until independence. 

I’m doubting myself, now, because Emma Dabiri is described on Wikipedia as an author and academic, who teaches at SOAS, and Owen Jones says her book is “So full of scholarship.” And she’s published by Penguin. 

But if I’m right, then at least one part of Ms Dabiri’s thesis relies on error, yet is being endorsed by powerful establishment players. Am I wrong? Or has Emma Dabiri made a simple mistake about the history of Irish Independence, a subject hotly contested for centuries? Or is everybody winking at a falsehood because it fits the popular narratives of the day?

  1. “Where Are All The Young Male Novelists”, again – The Observer New Review 16/05/21

2. My favourite is making analogies that associate my (putatively) left wing opponents with the Nazis! Fun! I’ve just realised that makes me sound like an American Neo-con. Oh dear. I’m not. Honestly! I’m a socialist! But I feel they are betraying the cause, forgetting that socialism is about nurturing everyone. 

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