💡 George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, 1980.
Try to imagine a culture where arguments are not viewed in terms of war, where no one wins or loses, where there is no sense of attacking or defending, gaining or losing ground. Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way. In such a culture, people would view arguments differently, experience them differently, carry them out differently, and talk about them differently.
The term “greenhouse gases” is a case in point. Cultural Logic did hundreds of consumer interviews around the subject of climate change and hardly anyone spontaneously referred to greenhouse gases in their responses. When specifically asked about the term, few could explain how it related to global warming. Perhaps this should not come as a surprise, since few people have any direct knowledge of greenhouses these days. As a result, when prompted, subjects in the Cultural Logic study typically described greenhouses as “nice places where plants live,” according to Grady—hardly the right connotations for a discussion of global warming. Which suggested to the folks at Cultural Logic that “greenhouse gases” is an unhelpful metaphor. So they alighted on a more productive one—”carbon dioxide blanket,” which has the virtue of explicitly naming the offending gas (CO2) but the drawback of suggesting that its embrace is warm and cuddly.
And in all our talk about streams and exhaust and mines and clouds, one thing is striking: People are nowhere to be found. These metaphors overwhelmingly draw from the natural world and the processes we use to draw resources from it; because of this, they naturalize and depersonalize data and its collection. Our current data metaphors do us a disservice by masking the human behaviors, relationships, and communications that make up all that data we’re streaming and mining. They make it easy to get lost in the quantity of the data without remembering how personal so much of it is. And if people forget that, it’s easy to understand how large-scale ethical breaches happen; the metaphors help us to lose track of what we’re really talking about.
Donald Trump has now been permanently suspended from Twitter and indefinitely banned from Facebook and Instagram, among other platforms, leading to a cacophony of public comments on free speech, digitally facilitated fascism, and the roles and responsibilities of social media companies in democratic governance. Many scholars in my field appear to be particularly frustrated, as they have been studying and voicing caution about these implications for years.
Well, perhaps not to that extent, but I have written a few papers around these subjects myself, and I thought I’d highlight one in particular, in a sort of here-is-my-SoundCloud way. In 2017, my colleague Alison and I identified four directions of travel with regard to free speech in the digital era.
Weaponisation of beliefs, opinions, and “alternative facts”
Content sharing as a speech act
Privatisation of censorship
Deliberate ambiguity, voluntary invisibility, and self-censorship as a strategic repertoire
Yes, this post is about that WSJ op-ed. Since its publication about 30 hours ago, it has kept turning up in my Twitter timeline, like a bad penny. I must have seen it at least 100 times. I guess this tells me a lot about the skewed composition of my social media bubbles. Anyway, I enjoy self-deprecating jokes, and I even have a collection of ‘not-a-real-doctor’ routines, but this piece grates on me on many levels.
If Dr Biden and Professor Cato have to put up with this kind of 어그로, what chance do I have? And what about those 70+ female students in my class who have just embarked on their journey to become a Doctor of Philosophy?
I don’t think I have met a Joseph Epstein myself (yet), but I have noticed something along the way. Those who have told me that they are not precious about their titles are all men and those who have suggested that I should put mine explicitly in my email signature and PowerPoint slides are all women. A tiny sample obviously, but no exception so far. Once I have realised this pattern, I find myself thinking about it regularly.