Saturday, November 13, 2004

Liberalism, Tolerance, and Missed Metaphors

Over at Obsidian Wings, Von takes issue with the mini-trend on the left toward a rhetorical equation of fundy Christians with fundy Muslims:

But I do take exception to the implication that such folks, however foolish or ill-intentioned, are the moral equivalent of the Taliban or a Wahhabist -- and, in particular, to the use of the term "madrassas." Let's save this word for true madrassas, and not weaken it by rhetorical hyperbole.

I think this misses the mark of the metaphor. Metaphors, of course, are notoriously context-dependent. I think the Wittgenstinian read on metaphor is the best one: we read a metaphor within a determinate linguistic context, and the success of the metaphor depends on the recipient's recognition of the correct context. Given that, the above seems to me to be quite a bit like the Purloined Letter; with all the fuss that's been going on about the political theory of tolerance that undergirds liberalism, the aim of the metaphor is right in the open. The problem with fundy Christians isn't that, like some Wahabbist fundies, they want to kill innocent people; it's that, like Wahhabist fundies, they have a totalizing, communitarian and eudamonist political ethic. Historically, this is why fundy Christians have been fans of separatist communities: by exiling themselves, they were able to create their own little Cities of God. Due to certain shifts in eschatology, though, they've decided to export those cities into the society at large, and reproduce their ideal communities in society writ large. Tolerance, then, is anathema to the recent fundy impulse: the recent fundy political movement is rooted in reproducing the City of God throughout the nation, and making it co-extensive with the country.

Since metaphor-missing became a cause celebre among the right during the recent election, I've grown increasingly concerned about it. While the knee-jerk post-structuralist reaction is to chalk it up to differences between semi-discrete semantic communities, many of the misses have been pretty egregious. So what the fuck is going on? And has this last election sounded the political death knell of metaphorical reasoning? Metaphors may have become too dangerous to employ in such a contentious political climate in which political adversaries are all-too willing to miscontrue the obvious prima facie context in which metaphor is deployed.

Update: Von from the ObSi 6 claims that my take is inapposite and "arrogant." I'm not sure where these come from. It's not unreasonable to argue that the Xian-as-Taliban metaphor is over-the-top, but I don't see how it's inapposite or arrogant. Going back over the initial post, it seems even clearer that the metaphor has been fundamentally (ha!) misread:

After all, one can be an idiot who must be opposed without being a galactically-dangerous idiot who we might have to kill.

Well, yeah.. But that just misses the point, which is that both are totalizing ideologies that think that their adherents can only really thrive or go uncorrupted in an homogenous social space (see: the fundy homeschooling movement, much of whose impetus derives from a freakish epistemology that tracks Original Sin: one taint, and the whole pedagogical project is potentially fucked). I could concede that the metaphorical equation might result in some weakening of our disapprobation, but I'd only do so with much more than the moral equivalent of "This is my hand."