Alright, fellow logotrons, here at the blog that flits about like a butterfly, it is metaphor time again. More specifically, I will oppose one of the more common metaphors in our lives. I’m talking about a metaphor of movement, expressed most of the time in two ways, either as “move forward” (using words from Old English) or “make progress” (from Latin: pro = forward, gress = move).
Before I argue against this metaphor, let’s consider what it means, exactly. As I indicated, it literally means movement in a forward direction. When applied as a metaphor, as in “We’ve made progress in getting people to lose weight” the phrase also means movement forward toward . . .
Movement toward what? If the phrase is to make sense, there has to be a recognizable goal, and in the sentence about losing weight, there is. Blubber down—that’s the goal. This metaphor is so common, however, that sometimes we use it as a general description of human life: “We’ve made a lot of progress as a society in the last 50 years.” Toward what? Overall goodness? More people who have a smart phone?
Maybe you’re thinking, “This guy is against progress. I’m outta here.” But I’m all in favor of progress if we define it, such as expanding the ability of humans to be free and autonomous, and to improve the quality of human life (health care, meaningful work, more vacation than I currently get, etc.).
Lately I’ve begun to realize, however, that in some serious ways we are still in the Middle Ages: superstitious peasants (anti-vaccination arguments, claims that evolution can’t be true), religious fanaticism (that one’s easy), brutal nobility and oppressed serfs (billionaires in politics and illegal farm workers).
It occurred to me as I was taking a walk this week that maybe it isn’t just the Middle Ages that haven’t gone away. Maybe every stage of human development that ever happened is still there. It just depends on where you are. Are there people who don’t have fire yet? At any rate, there are tribes of people with very little technology living in the jungle in Brazil. The problem with the metaphor of progress is that we tend to think of it as something like a wave moving forward, that we’re all sweeping along at the same speed in that wave.
That metaphor is wrong. From country to country, sometimes from one mile to another, in some places even from one house to another, the level of human development is drastically different. Is it progress if you have a library in your house and spend time on the internet when the kids who live three houses away from you can barely read? Which century is your neighborhood in?
In some places a woman can run for president, while in other places a woman is not even allowed to drive a car (for instance, in a particular hell-hole country in the middle east). But even in the country where a woman can run for president, other women don’t have health insurance and don’t go to the doctor because they can’t afford it, despite having jobs. Which century is that country in?
So I think we need a new metaphor. Think of something like a landscape filled with hills and valleys. The top of each hill represents a rise toward greater human freedom and development, but the hills are all of different heights, and they are surrounded with valleys.
This image is more reflective of how the world is. We are not all moving “forward” together. Some are rising, others are not. One of the appealing things about this new metaphor is that it fits so well with how our brains already work, because we grow up with a feeling that “up is good, down is bad”. You can probably come up with your own examples for that (or you can start with “the computer system is down but the stock market is up”).
Instead of talking about progress, we should be saying that we will raise more hills, we will make the hills higher, and we will raise every hill. This might be a richer, more useful metaphor. If we can truly raise every hill, that will be a hill worth walking up.