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12.9 Policy discourse through metaphor

If ideological positions are not about to change to any significant degree, then there is a case for adopting a more imaginative approach to dialogue between political or religious factions. Such an approach needs to be able to reframe the dialogue so that intractable differences are expressed more creatively without endeavouring to subsume them within an unsustainable consensus -- however attractive.

One practical approach to exploring the potential relationship between poetic composition and policy-making is to envisage a new kind of discourse through metaphor. How might a meeting or congress function when the factions represent strongly opposed views and metaphor is the prime medium of discourse? The main interest here lies in the nature of that dialogue process, and how it may transcend the difficulties usually encountered in international congresses that bring together very different perspectives --reflecting differences that may be considered quite intractable.

What form might metaphoric discourse take? What would be the guidelines for such discourse? Are there examples of cultures in which this mode of discourse is favoured relative to more technical forms? A series of guidelines for such a discourse might be envisaged. These could be revised and extended in the light of experience. Consider the following.

Guideline 1: Doctrinal positions should only be expressed through parable and metaphor.

The intention here is to free plenary discourse from dependence on well-developed cognitive frameworks and patterns of statements. Whereas the insights conveyed by such statements may well be widely appreciated, the form through which they are conveyed may however constitute a significant barrier to communication with those with different perspectives.

Set statements evoke set responses and inhibit the evolution of a dialogue. Presentation of insights through metaphor and parable involves the audience in a story which can evoke a variety of insights that can nourish and sustain a dialogue.

Guideline 2: Parables and metaphors in inter-faith discourse should be developed using common experience and everyday roles rather than be structured around symbolic figures with complex connotations not widely understood.

Is inter-factional discourse about the primacy of particular symbols or about the insights and understandings to which they point? Can the two be separated?

For example, to the extent that religious insights are universal they should lend themselves to articulation through a variety of symbols especially those common to different cultures.

Guideline 3: Differences should be expressed by questioning the aesthetic design of a metaphor or by creating contrast and perspective through the use of counter-metaphors.

There are deep differences between political perspectives or between religions. Blunt statements of disagreement and opposition do not necessarily help the dialogue to move forward. However, an understanding articulated through a metaphor can be encountered by suggesting preferred alternatives to the structure of that metaphor or to the evolution of the story told by any parable. Alternatively, a counter-metaphor may be introduced which reflects a different pattern of insights.

Questions may be asked as to why a metaphor has particular features and not others which may be put forward as richer, more pertinent, or less restrictive. Efforts in this direction have been explored in metaphorical theology, for example.

Guideline 4: The pattern of discourse is of greater significance than any particular feature of it -- although each such feature contributes to the pattern of the whole.

It is not usually helpful to expect that an audience's attention will be captured by a single perspective. The many dimensions of discourse associated with the challenges of spiritual concord or of sustainable development constitute a greater challenge.

Differences can usefully be treated as challenges calling for reconciliation at higher levels of understanding. But these too have to be articulated. Such articulation should also be done through metaphor -- indeed this may be all that is possible.

The real challenges of a congress may therefore lie in using metaphor to hold many differences and provide subtle constructs to contain or bridge between them. But such metaphorical "containers" and "bridges" become increasingly subtle as the dialogue evolves. In effect they become temples of the insight. The work of the congress could then be seen in terms of the construction of such temples. Metaphors of this kind can be the most valuable and communicable product of the work of the congress.

Guideline 5: The interplay between perspectives should allow for challenge.

It is the encounter with seemingly incompatible perspectives that can often evoke deeper levels of insight. A meeting can usefully be seen as a place of challenge through which more subtle levels of insight are brought into play -- levels which may be concealed or implicit in more conventional political or religious discourse.

The opportunities for the development of such interplay is best seen in music where instruments and musical themes challenge each other and are driven to creative responses which move the collective work of the whole to a higher level of significance. In this sense the congress may perhaps be better understood as a symphony orchestra.

Guideline 6: The intention of plenary discourse should include the generation of a product significant to wider society.

Whilst much may be accomplished between congress participants alone, and through them in the inspiration offered to their constituencies, the world is both weary and impatient. Care should be taken to avoid the production of wordy declarations that many will perceive as empty of significance for their lives.

In a media-oriented world, there is much to be said for a congress whose product is in the form of images rather than words -- even if the images are verbal images.

Can the pressures of conference discourse engender powerful new metaphors that can empower new forms of action or that can reframe relationships across religious divides? It is such metaphors which will travel most effectively through the media around the world.

Guideline 7: Intractable differences cannot usually be reconciled through a single insight. Rather they call for a pattern of complementary insights that respect those differences.

Intractable differences emerge as a result of profound differences in understanding -- differences which may be reinforced by cultural, linguistic and historical factors. The diversity and reflected in such differences is vital to the richness of human understanding.

Such complexity in approaching a profound experience, acknowledged to be of the utmost simplicity, is a challenge to the form through which it is represented. A pattern of complementary forms may prove to be more appropriate to holding together the diversity of insights honoured by religious traditions in their diversity.

It is through the exploration of such patterns that an appropriate measure of reconciliation may be progressively achieved. Metaphor provides a flexible tool for this collective exploration.