Your Metaphor's Burnt (And That's a Bad Thing)

March 22, 2015

As a kid, I enjoyed heading over to a friend's house to play video games (I didn't have a console at my house). One of them we often played was NBA Jam. A notable feature of the game was the "on fire" mode. After a player made three consecutive baskets, the announcer would declare that player (usually my friend) was "on fire!" As long as the "on fire" mode lasted, the player would have extra speed and skill, and the basketball would appear to be on fire as it soared through the air and into the net.

Although silly, I enjoyed it. In reality, a flaming basketball would hurt the player, not help. I'm not sure the burning basketball would even last long since there's not much beyond the outer shell. But it was just a game, so it was a entertaining addition to the sport.

As a massive field of potential 2016 Republican presidential candidates emerges, many of the hopefuls seem determined to stand out from the crowd by making more outrageous comments than the others. A leading contender for claiming the mantel of the most outlandish candidate is U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. In a recent speech, his fiery rhetoric involved a metaphor of fire.

"The Obama economy is a disaster," Cruz argued. "Obamacare is a trainwreck, and the Obama-Clinton foreign policy of leading from behind - the whole world is on fire."

Cruz had apparently used that line before, but this time a three-year-old child hilariously pointed out his exaggerated claim.

"The world is on fire?" she asked loud enough to be heard.

As people laughed, perhaps the wisdom of her question hit a few in the crowd. Like the child who noted the emperor has no clothes, this child exposed the rhetorical excesses of Cruz.

Cruz didn't back away from his bad metaphor, instead taking his usual path of remaining firm even when shown to be wrong or inappropriate.

"The world is on fire," Cruz repeated. "Yes! Your world is on fire. But you know what? Your mommy’s here and everyone’s here to make sure the world you grow up in is better."

Rather than admitting he was just using a metaphor - and not a good one since "on fire" sometimes means good (like in the video game) - Cruz doubled down. In my first book (For God's Sake, Shut Up!), I noted the power of metaphors and the problem of using inappropriate ones. Metaphors can be dangerous since they guide our thinking and actions. 

Despite Cruz's insistence to the young child, the world is not on fire. It's warmer due to global warming, but that wasn't Cruz's point because he refuses to believe that data. And there are some dangerous hot spots in the world, but many of are those are more the fault of President George W. Bush than President Barack Obama (although both used bombs and drones to increase the amount of literal fires in the Middle East). If we want to make the world better, we need to start with a clear analysis of the problems and reasoned rhetoric. 

Flaming basketballs might be good fun for a video game, but not for the NCAA tournament (now that would be some "March Madness"). Similarly, exaggerated claims and wild metaphors may work for entertaining stories (like "House of Cards"), but do not help in serious politics.