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2.7 Transcending the "switch" metaphor

1. Limitations of dualistic thinking

Much has been said in recent years about the inappropriateness of conventional western mind-sets in responding to the complexities of the environment. Particular criticism has focused on "dualistic" and "linear" thinking. "Holistic" approaches are advocated as more desirable alternatives, but unfortunately without any insights into the practicalities of their implementation. Metaphor may be helpful in this respect.

2. Implicit "switch"' metaphor

Consider the implicit switch metaphor that governs much of our thinking concerning major problems of society:

  • unemployment: an individual has a job, or does not have a job.
  • ignorance: an individual is educated, or is uneducated.
  • violence: an individual is subject to violence, or is not.
  • illegality and criminality: an individual is acting illegally, or is not.
  • illness: an individual is healthy, or is not.
  • corruption: an individual is corrupt, or is not.
  • uncleanliness: an individual is unhygienic, or is not.
  • discrimination: an individual is subject to discrimination, or is not.
  • environmental exploitation: an individual wastes resources and degrades the environment, or does not.
  • substance abuse: an individual is addicted to drugs (over-eating, smoking, alcohol, etc), or is not.
3. Policy-making and the "switch "metaphor

Many advocated policies are explicitly designed to "switch" individuals from one condition to the other in each case (e.g. from "on" to "off") -- from an undesirable condition to a desirable one. And once such a transition has been accomplished, the object is to prevent backsliding into the undesirable condition. The switch metaphor is a simple device through which ambiguity can be avoided (D N Levine, The Flight from Ambiguity, 1985).

Ironically this switch metaphor is also implicit in the thinking of those who identify most closely with a holistic, non-linear, appropriate and sustainable alternative. For them it is a question of how to switch from the inappropriate to the appropriate -- and stay there.

It would be a mistake to consider that this metaphor is "just a way of thinking" without any concrete implications. Much legislation is designed around whether a person is in Condition A or Condition B of some such switch, with immediate consequences in terms of social security benefits, various forms of aid, and varieties of social sanction. An extreme example, the apartheid policy in South Africa distinguishing between "white" and "non-white", became administratively feasible following a seemingly innocent census in which people were requested to identify their "racial group".

4. Ambiguity and limitations of the "switch" metaphor

It is important to recognize the extent to which this switch metaphor is natural to western modes of thinking. It is debateable how meaningful such polarities are in other cultures, or within many sub-cultures of western societies (Maruyama 1980, Hofstede 1980). Indications of this are to be found in the ambiguity of attitudes towards corruption in non-western society -- and even in western society. If comprehension of the issue is more complex than that implied by the switch metaphor, and if the dynamics associated with each problem dimension call for a more complex description, then unquestioning use of the switch metaphor constitutes a real danger at this time (Judge, 1986).

Individuals and groups escape into ambiguity to capture the wider reality on which the options of the switch metaphor have been imposed. There are obviously more degrees of freedom than are implied by the switch metaphor. People have direct experience of those opportunities even though they may be poorly articulated into sets of categories.

5. "Smoking" as a metaphor of experiential ambiguity

The issue of smoking is an extremely valuable illustration of many dimensions of individual and collective response to the challenges of these times. It is a neat metaphor of the experiential ambiguities in discovering a more appropriate relationship to these challenges. It is especially valuable because it offers us a framework within which to discuss much more charged or controversial issues such as overpopulation and environmental degradation. Consider:

  • as an illustration of switch thinking in public policy -- legislation on smoking vs. not-smoking (and ways of circumventing such restrictions in restaurants and the workplace)
  • as a major source of tax revenue for governments -- can governments afford to recommend against it
  • the struggle of the individual -- whether to smoke, how often to smoke, whether to "stop"
  • the fashionable image of smoking -- macho, cool, sophisticated, a shared experience, low-key bonding, etc
  • the health aspect -- the risk of lung cancer against the challenge of gaining weight
  • as a stimulant and tranquillizer -- what alternatives are available for mood adjustment
  • as a means of self-assertion -- imposing a style and subjecting others to its waste products; revolting against parental and other authorities
Using this metaphor, it is much easier -- especially for smokers -- to understand the ambiguity of governments and industrialists in restraining their exploitation of the environment. For industrialists "sustainable development" then lends itself to other interpretations far from those of conservationists, for example "sustainable competitive advantage". It is not simply a matter of the inherent logic of switching from unsustainable policies to sustainable ones. The assumption that industrialists will willingly espouse environmentally-friendly sustainable policies seems extremely naive in this light, even when all the arguments are clearly evident -- as the partial results of "health warnings" to smokers illustrate. Can any smoker genuinely expect industry to stop air pollution through smokestacks ?

6. Transcending the "switch" metaphor

In the light of the above arguments it should be possible to look anew at many of the conventional problems with which people are obliged to deal personally. This process should be legitimated by the probability of detecting forms of response by individuals which are not captured by the categories that the switch metaphor reinforces. The existence of additional categories, however confusedly they are currently understood, would then call for richer, and less mechanistic, metaphors to capture the relationship between them.

The issue is, as Mark Twain succinctly put it, "If your only tool is a hammer, then all problems look like nails". The principal tool of the international community would appear to be the switch.