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2.9 Imaginal deficiency and simplistic metaphors

1. Imaginal deficiency

In the light of earlier arguments concerning the "switch metaphor", it is useful to explore further on the assumption that the inadequacies of existing strategies are partly due to poverty of the imagination -- namely to imaginal deficiency at the policy level. The question to be asked is whether there is some pattern to current thinking -- such as reliance on the switch metaphor -- which effectively limits the complexity of the policy options which tend to emerge, especially at the international level.

The concern is that, perhaps more crucially, the question should be asked whether such imaginal deficiency is not a prime handicap for those most vulnerable to the problems of the times -- unemployment, illness, etc. It is well-recognized that rich use of imagination is made by those in underprivileged circumstances, whether in the form of visual imagery or metaphor, and irrespective of educational background. So it is not imagination that is lacking. The question may be rather:

  • whether that imagination is appropriately harnessed in response to the challenges
  • whether the imaginative form is appropriate to any new response to those challenges
  • whether external forces (educators, experts, officials, priests, media, etc) do not actively de-legitimize the effective use of that imagination.
2. Prevalence of simplistic metaphors

Unfortunately those assuming responsibility for advocating and implementing new policies in response to the social problematique do not consider the social system to involve problems of comprehension as complex as those encountered in fundamental physics and theology. They continue to believe that policies of requisite complexity can be envisaged using non-metaphoric language, with the consequence that such policies tend to be simplistic, inadequate, incoherent (except to those involved) and incapable of arousing the enthusiasm of broad constituencies.

When it is a matter of practical politics, however, politicians make considerable use of metaphor in communicating their positions to the masses (eg "nuclear umbrella", "Star Wars", "green revolution"), as the studies cited by van Noppen show (1985). Instead of policy-makers using richer metaphors to envisage more imaginative policies of an inherently more integrative nature, policy-making is done using a sterile administrative jargon (legitimated by its academic equivalent). The simplistic product is then discussed and communicated to a wider public using metaphors which fail to conceal the poverty of the imagination on which the policy is based (eg "umbrella").

3. Examples of simplistic metaphors

(a) Geometrical metaphor: As a first and very basic illustration, consider the language in which policy arguments are made. In any policy debate, much reference is made to the "points" made and occasionally to the "line" of argument. Agendas, declarations, policy documents and organization charters are structured in terms of "points". It is important to recognize that metaphoric use is being made of the most primitive geometric elements -- points and lines.

It is true that within geometry much can be constructed with points and lines, because of their fundamental nature. But it is also true that any such construction depends on clear recognition of intermediary structures such as surfaces and volumes of various well-established forms (polygons, conics, polyhedrons, etc). In the policy world occasional vague reference is made to "areas" (of specialized activity) and to "spheres" (of influence). But it clear that the kind of understanding required in architecture to move from such basic geometric insights to the construction of the simplest arch required for the most basic forms of building is totally lacking at the policy level -- except in the intuitive understanding of the need for "checks and balances". Any discussion of "bridge building" policies to link two opposing factions therefore tends to lack the conceptual scaffolding through which effective bridges could be constructed.

This may help to explain why the principal means of describing and designing organizations is the organization chart that is normally a hierarchical tree structure -- quite primitive in geometric terms.

Is it not appropriate to ask why no exploration has been made of the potential implications of more complex geometrical objects as a scaffolding for new forms of policy ? What might emerge from endeavouring to structure an agenda, a declaration or a set of resolutions into a polyhedral form of some appropriate degree of complexity ? Through such a form, relationships between "points" can be defined more explicitly. "Areas" can be identified with precision. But potentially of the greatest significance, the assembly of points, lines and areas to form a volume. In this way conceptual scaffolding is provided for an integrated whole, which is not the case with the normal jumble of policy recommendations. It is much to be regretted that the implications of Buckminster Fuller's work, especially on tensegrity structures, have not been explored in the design of more appropriate conceptual, policy and institutional frameworks.

(b) Positional metaphors: Much current policy discussion is based on identification of the "position" taken by each party, to the point that each is called upon "to make his position clear". It is assumed that a reasonable debate can only take place if parties each take up a "stance" on some position. Shifting "position" is perceived as recognition of the weakness of that policy position. Such static metaphors reinforce the static quality of policies and prevent the emergence of more dynamic policies that might be of requisite complexity to contain dynamic problem situations.

In life, only plants occupy fixed positions. To survive animals need to shift position and take up different stances according to the changing challenges of their environment. One insightful book on policy by Geoffrey Vickers, is entitled "Freedom in a Rocking Boat". On rocking boats, fixity of position is associated with instability. What kinds of policy might emerge if policies were debated in terms of dynamic positional metaphors such as "walking" or "dancing" ?

(c) Tool metaphors: It is quite amazing to note the way in which unimaginative use is made of the simplest tools to illustrate what are supposedly the most critical and sensitive policies. The saddest examples relate to military strategies as defined by nuclear "umbrellas" and desert "shields" and "swords". Such thinking is reflected in the naming of military programs and defense systems, for example "trident".

Such metaphors raise the question as to whether there are not more complex tools which could provide the conceptual scaffolding to understand richer policy options.

(d) Domestic metaphors: The power of the metaphors used by politicians may effectively distract attention from the poverty of imagination. This is best illustrated by Harold Macmillan (former British Prime Minister) in attacking Margaret Thatcher's privatization policy as being a case of "selling the family silver". This powerful indictment of a complex policy was deflected by Thatcher's subsequent acknowledgement that she was indeed "selling the family silver", but that she was "selling it back to the family". Again are there not more complex features of domestic life which could be used to open up a wider range of policy options ?