How Sex, Politics, Money and Religion are Killing Planet Earth

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Dangers of the Political use of Metaphor and Other Rhetoric on an Undereducated Populace

More years ago than I care to admit in Mrs. Vera Napoli’s AP English class, I learned about metaphor, simile, allegory and several other artful devices authors and others use to enliven language. I actually learned these things in earlier English classes throughout my primary and secondary schooling, but the vivacious Mrs. Napoli’s instruction on all things literary had a way of hitting the ball out of the park (so to speak). At the time, my education was far from privileged. I attended various mediocre public schools in Dade County, Florida, but with a little diligence and the help of a few exceptional educators, I managed to graduate with a reasonable amount of useful information in my head.

After High School, I was fortunate enough to go on to college, and throughout my long and protracted college career, the information I had gathered during my earlier education actually served me well. Although I was a Biochemistry and then Environmental Science major, Mrs. Napoli’s instruction enabled me to perform adequately against English majors in riveting electives such as “The Eighteenth Century English Novel” and “Environmental Literature,” which I aced with ease. In spite of my less than elite early education, I was able to compete then and now with confidence that I have at least an adequate grasp of the concepts of language and other basic subjects.

Unfortunately, it can no longer be assumed that children who graduate from public schools in this country have basic competence in any academic area. Just recently, my nephew, who was attending a community college in California, was given the task of writing a 5-paragraph, critical essay. He had no idea where to start, having never written one before. How can we give away High School diplomas without providing students with this minimum basic skill? Writing essays is much more than simply putting words on a page. By forcing a child to analyze what he reads and to identify the subtleties of language, the child’s brain is trained for critical thinking. Critical thinking allows a person to identify rhetoric for what it is and to see the tones of gray in a political landscape painted in black and white.

This point was illustrated tragically in the events that unfolded at a shopping mall in Arizona last week when an expelled Community College student apparently failed to grasp the intended symbolism of crosshairs on a map.

I don’t believe Sara Palin wanted anybody to shoot the Congressmen and Congresswomen from the Congressional districts she identified on her political map with crosshairs. She was using the literary device of metaphor to indicate political, rather than actual targets. The problem is an unbalanced individual chose to take her literally, rather than figuratively. In recent days, in the wake of the Arizona tragedy, it has become apparent to me that a certain proportion of our American population actually doesn’t understand the difference. Of course, Jared Loughner has more problems than his inability to grasp the intricacies of the English language, but I would argue an impoverished American education played a part in his behavior.

I recently posted a comment on a friend’s blog ( and received the following reply from another reader:

“Killing Mother, hey, where did you provide with your dung for brains proof the tea parties are racist? You did not.

By the way, this shooter Loughner was a LIBERAL, did not like Palin, by the way LIBERALS LIKE TOM DEGAN AND KILLING MOTHER MADE MOVIES ABOUT KILLING GEORGE BUSH.


The Fort Hood shooter got that statement from “If they bring a knife, we bring a gun” Barack Obama about let’s not jump to conclusions.

So, defo, Tom Degan and the idiotic name killing mother are much closer to this loughner character.


My comment that evoked the above tirade follows:

“People are social animals, and the vast majority is conditioned to go with the flow. Very few actually think independently. Because of this phenomenon, Hitler was able to carry out his atrocities with the consent of a country of German lemmings.

Palin and her kin are mainstreaming insanity. Lemmings will follow. If words are the tools of political discourse, politicians should not be allowed to claim innocence when their words incite exactly the kind of action they are promoting.”

The ranter, without actually objecting to any of the points I raised in my comment, launched into a scathing personal condemnation based almost exclusively on my username (killing Mother). The diatribe was difficult to follow, and from it, I could discern little except liberals are evil and my nom de plume was case in point (apparently).

Like Lougner, the person who so vehemently objected to my comment seems incapable of critical analysis. I did not call the Tea Party, “racist.” I made a general commentary about the nature of people to follow their leaders, using the German example and lemmings as metaphor. My detractor also failed to pick up on the meaning of my username even though I assumed my intentions were obvious from the lower case “k” on “killing” and capitalized “M” on “Mother.” Perhaps I am being a bit too subtle on this point.

The tragic events in Arizona and my subsequent experience with the above personality have certainly been an eye opener. Freedom of speech is a wonderful thing, and the English language is a powerful tool that can evoke emotion and empower movements. But language can also be dangerous. Palin’s supporters are armed and angry. She needs to be aware that many of them do not grasp the subtlety of her rhetoric and are taking her words literally. Until the day comes when we have an educated population that can engage in and comprehend intelligent discourse, we need to be more careful with our words.


  1. killing Mother:
    Eloquently said and totally agreed upon.

  2. "Until the day comes when we have an educated population that can engage in and comprehend intelligent discourse, we need to be more careful with our words."

    Nicely summed up!

    Sorry, I would comment more but I just found your wonderful blog and I am on my way to work!

    But I need to say that anyone who brings up the Obama quote,“If they bring a knife, we bring a gun” is hugely stretching and/or is simply listening (without thinking) to their favorite rightist radio commentator/agitator. To bring up that quote from 2008, something that Obama stated as a joke during a campaign rally, AND compare it as equal to what Palin does ALL THE TIME is the epitome of ridiculous!

    Anyhow, your intelligent dialog brings comfort to my heart that the world is not completely mad!

    BTW, I am neither 'right' nor 'left', I do not think Obama is perfect nor did I think G.W. Bush was entirely stupid. But one thing I do believe is that Palin and her ilk have not contributed anything positive to the world. The world would be a much better place without them.

  3. While I like your attention getting blog name, I would like to add that we cannot kill Mother. We will simply make her look much more favorably on species other than our own... jellyfish for example. If we could kill Mother, we would be the most powerful force in nature and that is the biggest fallacy of all. The earth will go on quite well, sans us.Thanks for a wonderful blog.
    Mary Tooley

  4. @sdc, thank you for pointing out yet another instance of poor literacy skills in the population, the inability to form a well-defended argument. The same people who don't understand symbolism also don't realize that it takes more than one quotation taken out of context to defend a good argument. Thanks for your comment. It is good to have some opinions from the center.

  5. @Suitcase Lady (love the name), I used to agree with you about killing our Mother, but recent trends are making me more pessimistic. I hope you are right. Thanks for your comment.

  6. Another excellent post. I discovered you through DotEarth a couple months back. Your writing is clear, natural and enjoyable to read. With your natural talent it's no surprise that you excelled despite the less than topnotch schools. By the way, I thought Bob Herbert's column was the best commentary I've read regarding the Arizona shooting.

  7. @minsky, thank you for your positive comment. I will look into the Bob Herbert column. Thanks for the tip.

  8. Hey there!

    For the record: I'm not Major Tom.


    Tom Degan