Metaphors matter: How to expose the dark art of the false comparison

When it comes to public language, we live in the era of the false comparison.

Approaching an election year, journalists and political adversaries must be held accountable not just for their literal language, but for their metaphors as well.

This month marks the 20th anniversary of the ascension of Clarence Thomas to the United States Supreme Court. The 1991 Senate hearings that confirmed Thomas were lurid and contentious. Taking testimony from Anita Hill against Thomas, senators sparked a national conversation about the meaning of “sexual harassment.”

In response, Thomas launched a counterattack:

“This is a circus. It's a national disgrace. And from my standpoint, as a black American, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate rather than hung from a tree.”

The power of that metaphor -- the idea of the high-tech lynching -- attracted enough sympathy for Thomas to gain confirmation. It was a false comparison, nonetheless, unfair even to his oafish inquisitors and, more important, a distortion of the historical reality of lynching in the apartheid American South.

Say what you want. But I can say what I want, too.

I can object, for example, when the former president refers to war in the Mideast as a “crusade.” I can blow the whistle at efforts to nickname a football team “the Lynch Mob,” just because a star player is named John Lynch. If the team plays horribly, I’ll holler if a coach characterizes the botched effort as an “abortion.” An act of arson – even against a house of worship – does not qualify, Dear Reader, as a “Holocaust.”

After the Tuscon shootings last January that killed six and wounded 18, the mayor of that city blamed the killings on the influence of violent political rhetoric. Sarah Palin -- whose political iconography included crosshairs on targets --  accused critics of “manufacturing a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn.”

Palin was unaware, I imagine, of the connotative meaning of “blood libel.” The phrase has a thousand-year history and refers to the anti-Semitic accusations that Jews were using the blood of slaughtered Christian children in their own demonic rituals.

Then, of course, there's the Hitler problem.

In 1980, I attended a political rally in St. Petersburg, Fla., for presidential candidate Ronald Reagan who responded to a sign in the crowd that called him a Fascist. He pointed to the protester and said something like, “Son, if it wasn’t for my generation fighting Nazi Germany, you might now be living under the heel of Fascism.”

Inappropriate comparisons to the likes of Hitler and Stalin are the fleas that come with the presidential dog.

In that same tradition, country singer Hank Williams Jr. lost his gig as the Bosephian bard of  Monday Night Football after comparing President Obama to a certain Austrian housepainter. When the president played golf with Speaker John Boehner, argued Junior, it was “like Hitler playing golf with Netanyahu.”

When last week Bryant Gumbel described NBA Commissioner David Stern as a “plantation overseer,” he too was practicing the dark art of the false comparison.

The disproportionate metaphor has its place in comedy and satire, but in serious discourse it stinks up the joint. Rather than focus the public on the complex issues of race in a league in which black athletes play for white owners, the spotlight shines instead on the distortion of language and the obvious disconnect between metaphor and reality.

A metaphor always invites a question, such as "How is a basketball commissioner like a slave driver?" Forgive me for noticing more differences than similarities.

Referring to criticism of NBA players by the commissioner, Gumbel argued:

"Stern's version of what's been going on behind closed doors [during negotiations] has of course been disputed. But his efforts were typical of a commissioner that has always seemed eager to be viewed as some kind of modern plantation overseer, treating NBA men, as if they were his boys."

That final phrase, “his boys,” alludes to the historical use of “boys” by racists to diminish the status of black men.

More direct is the metaphor of the “plantation overseer.” It’s important to note that the comparison is not to the plantation owner. As the overseer serves the plantation owner, according to Gumbel’s logic, so David Stern carries out the dirty work of the owners.

To fairly judge Gumbel, we need a better sense of the historical role of the overseer.  Consider this description by Moses Grandy (1843), author of the autobiographical “Life As a Slave.”

"I have often seen him [the overseer] tie up persons and flog them in the morning, only because they were unable to get the previous day's task done: after they were flogged, pork or beef brine was put on their bleeding backs, to increase the pain; he sitting by resting himself, and seeing it done. After being thus flogged and pickled, the sufferers often remained tied up all day, the feet just touching the ground, the legs tied, and pieces of wood put between the legs. All the motion allowed was a slight turn of the neck. Thus exposed and helpless, the yellow flies and mosquitoes in great numbers would settle on the bleeding and smarting back, and put the sufferer to extreme torture. This continued all day, for they were not taken down till night."

A far cry from the sadistic rigors of an NBA practice.

I don’t know David Stern, but I do know sports writers – including African-Americans – who have covered Stern for many years without any indictment related to race. Stern was born in New York in 1942 into a Jewish family and grew up in New Jersey. He came of age during a time when many liberal Jews expressed solidarity with black Americans in their pursuit of human and civil rights.

Relationships between African-American and Jewish communities have become more problematic since then, expressed most famously by the likes of Louis Farrakhan, who has preached that Jewish owners and agents control and exploit black athletes and entertainers.

Don’t worry. I’m not comparing Bryant Gumbel to Louis Farrakhan. Unlike Gumbel, I want to be held accountable not just for my facts but for my metaphors.

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.


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