From the Minister
In Jay's column in the current issue of Voices,
he talks about the winter solstice and its connection to the actions this time of year. An archive of these and other columns by the Ministers is maintained and is accessible on the left:
December 17, 2014
Now that we in the northern hemisphere have arrived at the darkest time of the year—the week with the shortest days and longest nights—my thoughts turn to . . . metaphor. Stick with me: the connection may become a bit more obvious.
George Lakoff is a professor of linguistics and cognitive science and is recognized as a master of metaphor study. In More Than Cool Reason Lakoff explains: “Metaphors are so commonplace we often fail to notice them.”
Lakoff offers a familiar example: the metaphor “life is a journey.” We know that’s not literally true; living doesn’t really equate to “going somewhere.” But, because it helps us make and communicate meaning, we engage this metaphor frequently—“It’s time to move on.” “I feel stuck.” “She helped show me the way.” “We’re at a crossroad.” “When we look back, we can see how far we’ve come.”
I began this column with a variation of that metaphor: “Now that we in the northern hemisphere have arrived at the darkest time of the year . . .” We’re so well-acquainted with the metaphor “life is a journey” that we accept the claim that we have arrived at a time of the year without needing to stop and analyze it. As Lakoff claims, we engage metaphor “unconsciously and automatically, with so little effort that we hardly notice it.”
Let’s consider another commonly used metaphor, one that is also offered in a variety of ways. “I was kept in the dark.” “He was in a dark mood.” “Dark money.” “Dark horse.” “A shot in the dark.” “Dark humor.” We readily understand each of these idioms. We also understand, without giving it too much thought, that when used metaphorically “dark” almost always has a negative connotation.
What may be less apparent is how equating darkness with ignorance or depression or evil or other kinds of negative experiences may function at the subconscious level as a way of making assumptions about people. Consider, for example, that among the words a common online dictionary offers as antonyms for the word “dark” are: “intelligent, joyful, vivacious, moral, good, clean, hopeful.” So, subconsciously, what might that suggest about darker people?
Jacqui James is a retired Unitarian Universalist religious educator and staff member of our Unitarian Universalist Association. She wrote on this topic several years ago, a piece that begins:
Blackmail, blacklist, black mark, Black Monday, black mood, black-hearted. Black plague, black mass, black marker.
Good guys wear white, bad guys wear black. We fear black cats, and the Dark Continent. But it’s okay to tell a white lie, lily-white hands are coveted, it’s great to be pure as the driven snow.
In keeping with George Lakoff’s claims, James emphasizes: “We shape language and are shaped by it.” Making the connection completely explicit, she asserts: “Ascribing negative and positive values to black and white enhances the institutionalization of this culture’s racism.”
I don’t think Jacqui James is claiming that using “dark” or “black” as a metaphor for negative or evil makes one a racist. I do think she is trying to call attention to the way this language functions subconsciously, “with so little effort that we hardly notice it.”
In this darkest time of the year, we find our nation embroiled in upheaval. Cries of “no justice, no peace” and “black lives matter” and “I can’t breathe” are sounding in our streets here in Charlotte and around the country. The attention given to the killing of unarmed black men has forced more of us to admit what some of us have known all along: justice—in policing, in the courts, in the criminal “justice” system—is not blind. Justice still sees black and white, dark and light and, too often, makes assumptions in keeping with problematic metaphors.
Am I suggesting that a metaphor caused a white, 6’4″, armed, trained police officer sitting in an SUV to perceive an unarmed black teenager as, in his words, a “demon?” Of course not.
My suggestion in this season is this: our inherently unjust, inequitable system can only change if all of us—black and white and all others too— examine the ways we not only participate in the system as it is but help keep current ways of thinking and acting in place. We must be willing to scrutinize our own lives carefully, not settling for the assumption that there aren’t really any changes we need to make.
Language is subtle and . . . powerful. As Heidegger put it, “Language is the house of Being. In its home [humankind] dwells.” When we risk bringing what is subconscious to the conscious level, when we examine ways of speaking that “are so commonplace we often fail to notice them,” we may find that, as Jacqui James puts it:
The words black and dark don’t need to be destroyed or ignored, only balanced and reclaimed in their wholeness. The words white and light don’t need to be destroyed or ignored, only balanced and reclaimed in their wholeness. Imagine a world that had only light—or dark. We need both. Dark and light. Light and dark.