Why Metaphors Matter: There’s an ‘I’ in society…

Today’s blog is a digression from the series I’ve been working on regarding a Christian perspective of forgiveness.  I intend to come back to forgiveness in the near future.  However this week I read something which caught my eye and believe it is worth sharing.

Last week I read an article by James Gustafson called “Theology Confronts Technology and the Life Sciences”.  In this article Gustafson makes the point by-the-by that our ethical opinions about particular matters such as euthanasia, abortion, etc are impacted by how an individual views their relationship with society.  Gustafson suggests that there are two competing metaphors that are used:  mechanistic and organic.

Mechanistic metaphors are those which understand society as if it is a contract.  Individuals are seen as voluntary participants in a society without a “natural bond” between them.  An example of the mechanistic metaphor at work can be observed in the advent of human rights.  Human rights such as free-speech are things which have been agreed upon by participants of a society for the good of the individual.  The state functions to ensure these rights are maintained.  In this model the individual is valued above the whole.

The organic metaphor understands society as interrelated and interdependent.  Individuals are naturally connected.  In this metaphor the parts make up the whole; however the whole takes precedence over the individuals.  A good example of how the organic metaphor manifests itself is that of the environmentalist who cites the health of the planet as the highest good.

I believe that the metaphor we use has great implications for how we engage with society.  The example of Anne Coulter helps illustrate this point.  I heard an interview on the radio between a Canadian editor of “Now Magazine” and a journalist who works for Fox.  The journalist from Fox argued that preventing Coulter from speaking at the University of Ottawa violated her right to free-speech.  The Canadian responded by saying that in Canada free-speech and individual rights are not seen as the end or goal but rather the greater good of accepting minorities is the end. 

The point in citing this example is not to argue for one side or the other but rather to illustrate the impact that an organic (Now magazine) or a mechanistic (Fox news) has on particular ethical issues.  We are all part of many different societies:  work, country, province, church, school, family etc.  In each of these societies the metaphors we implicity use and the ones being advocated for by its other member may differ. Regardless of circumstance metaphors matter—it’s worthwhile to try and figure them out.