Yesterday afternoon, I gave a lecture to my first year communications class on George Lakoff‘s idea that our thinking is fundamentally rooted in metaphor. Lakoff explains that the underpinnings of how we structure our understanding of the world is metaphorical. He gives the example of “Time is money” – a metaphor that expresses a principle which guides us to use our time parsimoniously. He also says, in Metaphors We Live By, that “Argument is war” is the metaphor that governs how we interact when we debate a point. Lakoff asks us to think about what the world would be like if we lived by the metaphor that “Argument is dance.” It would certainly change the way we speak about debating and how we behave while debating. For example, we would no longer say things like: “I shot down his argument.” or “I really clobbered him with that point!”
After class, I was walking in the rain back to my cozy mustard yellow corner office in Togo Salmon Hall. A couple of students, excited by the ideas presented in lecture, were walking with me. But I was a little distracted. In fact, I was thinking about how metaphor structures political communication in Canada.
We have seen a marked decline in parliamentary courtesy and civil discourse – both in the House, during Question Period, in the media, and in attack ads. Why is this so irksome, when we have been watching the same thing evolve below us in the US for decades? I think there is an answer that many may have overlooked.
Marshall McLuhan suggested, in Medium is the Message that the United States is a society that was a product of the printing press, like France – a society where the uniform communications permitted by printed media enabled a “legalistic” system of government. One that depended on rules.
Now, Canada comes from a different tradition. Our Parliament is part of the Westminster system, like the United Kingdom. The Westminster system was not born during an age of industrial mechanization and laws. It was born during a feudal time in the midst of an oral culture where relatively few things were written down. This required a much more consensus-based system of political communication where people built the national narratives through storytelling and tradition. These national narratives that would later become – through the power of precedent – principles that would guide political function. This is completely different from the American or French systems, which depend on laws and the interpretation of the judiciary.
On top of this, let us consider John Ralston Saul’s argument, laid out in his latest book, A Fair Country, that our culture is actually a Métis product – a negotiated hybrid of British, French and First Nations culture. The British culture was oral and precedent-based, First Nations culture was oral and precedent-based. And, remember that French Canadian culture was developed in pre-revolutionary France (which was a feudal society) – so French Canadian culture was also oral and precedent-based. This meant that the thrust of our politics has been to encourage negotiation, compromise and continuity. In these oral, precedent-based cultures, “Argument is dance.”
What we are seeing, in the change of tone of our political communication toward warlike aggression, partisanship and spiteful attack, is fundamental change toward a more “legalistic” or “structured” society. We might call it Americanized, because it is becoming more and more similar to the American model and they are the greatest cultural influence we face.
The fact is, though, that it represents a fundamental change in our political culture – a shift away from our roots in oral cultural traditions. An oral cultural tradition which necessitates that “argument be dance” because of our mutually shared responsibility for telling the national story and keeping it alive, renewing it with ever more subtlety and nuance – human nuance – which is inherently subjective and flexible. We are shifting toward a national definition captured in a set of laws that we write down, print out and hammer into shape – and then fight over.
We are seeing the ideas on which our culture is based move away from storytelling, toward objectification and rules.
I think it’s a sad development. I love the stories and myths of our past – Paul Bunyan, Louis Cyr, Gitche Manitou.
Canadians chafe at the ideas of laws – they’re constraining. So let’s decide to be civil.
Maybe we can shake hands over it and give one another our word.
At least then we will be true to our historical roots in oral culture.