Alan Watts used to encourage his audiences to think about the metaphors that might be channelling their thinking without them even realising it.
What silent metaphors attach to ‘life’, for example? Do you worry about whether you were given a fair start in life, whether you’re well-equipped for it, and whether you stand a chance of succeeding according to some criteria which we all more or less recognise (and which we’re less able to ignore than we might like to think)? In which case, is life basically a game or a competition to you? Is that the silent metaphor that’s at work?
Or does life feel like an unwanted situation into which you find yourself suddenly thrust, like a boring party or a long queue, from which you can’t really ‘escape’ in any way that appeals? Is there a metaphor lying deep somewhere that produces this sense of separateness from ‘life’ going on all around?
Watts thought that too often we see life as a race, unclear as to what lies at the end of it or what the ‘prize’ is for doing well, yet running headlong nonetheless. This, he thought, was as daft as an orchestra’s performance of a symphony being judged according to how quickly it reached the last bar of the music. The creators of the cartoon series South Park made a great video to accompany some audio of Watts talking about it:
embedded by Embedded Video
I’ve been thinking about this because of a recent article by Madeleine Bunting about how a ‘marketised mindset’ has taken hold in the UK to such an extent that we have basic trouble accepting the dependency of others – whether children or the elderly or the frail – and prefer to ‘buy in’ our ‘solutions’. The dependency of others frustrates the aspirations – the silent metaphors of life – we’ve unwittingly ended up with, which orient us towards working and consuming.
Even care is disrupted, as Bunting points out, when we talk revealingly about ‘investing’ in our children.
These are more than random linguistic choices: this language of the market exposes our ways of thinking just as much as it channels them in the first place – we really don’t seem to be able to distinguish between creating a society that uses wealth efficiently and one that subordinates itself entirely to the accumulation of that wealth in the first place. And in failing to make that distinction we end up no longer being able to offer any values that successfully trump wealth-creation and efficiency – this is partly what the Occupy Wall Street campaigns are all about, of course.
In my line of work we’re experiencing this march of market logic more and more as tuition fees start to rise. On the one hand it’s hard to begrudge students a concern about whether their thousands of pounds are being put to good use, but on the other a teacher-student relationship that’s supposed to be pastoral and intellectually nurturing is completely shot to pieces when a student concludes a one-to-one meeting by asking ‘what else can I use you for?’
How does a teacher assert an alternative set of values at that point? Just as asking someone for their respect is a sure sign that you don’t presently have it and probably won’t now get it, so any attempt to describe to a student the kind of relationship on which a university education ought to be based has no hope of bringing that situation about: if student expectations start to be firmly rooted in the idea that education is basically a transaction – if that is the silent metaphor that takes hold, governing all conversation on the issue – then for teachers to insist otherwise will be pretty much futile.
As with care, so with education: that the marketised mindset Bunting talks about should take root is not just tragic, it’s also revealing of how quickly and how deeply we can become victims of a prevailing silent metaphor – in this case that of a ‘transaction’ – barely even noticing that it’s happening.
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