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The Danger of Bad Metaphors


When comparing two groups of people by way of metaphor, make sure it says what you mean to say about each group. An ill-conceived metaphor can undo your argument, and needlessly damage others in the process.

This is primarily a response to a New Republic piece by Jeet Heer, released yesterday. Entitled “Breaking Mad,” it compares the Republican Party’s embrace of white supremacy to drug addiction.

Imagine an autopsy that concludes the cause of death was a drug overdose. After the funeral, distraught family members assemble to talk about how they could have prevented such a senseless tragedy. Then, after brief reflection, they all decide to start mainlining heroin. That, in a nutshell, is the history of the Republican Party over the past half-century. The GOP is addicted to whiteness, a psychological drug it started ingesting in the early 1960s with the encouragement of Goldwater conservatives, who argued that the party could [win over]( the traditionally Democratic white South by [resisting the civil rights movement]( Richard Nixon was one of the Republicans who initially had trepidations. “If Goldwater wins his fight,” he [told]( Ebony_ magazine in 1962, “our party would eventually become the first major all-white political party. And that isn’t good. That would be a violation of GOP principles.”

That’s how the article begins, and the metaphor is carried through all the way to the end. Republicans are junkies hooked on whiteness.

I normally like Jeet Heer and consider him a pretty solid writer, but this approach is both too kind to Republicans and needlessly cruel to people suffering with drug addictions.

I realize it’s not a metaphor that’s meant to be taken literally. Whiteness isn’t the same as crack or heroin or meth. But such casual deployment of this clumsy device does a disservice to the overall argument.

Starting with the obvious, people hooked on drugs are damaging themselves, first and foremost. It’s also useful to distinguish between people who have seen drug use shatter their lives, and those who use drugs recreationally while suffering few or no ill effects. Heer puts no effort into making this distinction, which is fair enough, since it undermines his point. Is it possible to be a “casual” user of whiteness? What does that look like? Perhaps it is to passively enjoy the fruits of one’s white privilege while not paying attention to the ways it is employed in disprivileging others. Or maybe it’s perusing Stormfront once in a blue moon but never donning a white hood and burning a cross oneself. It’s hard to say, and I am loathe to speculate further.

Returning to the idea that drug use is either a victimless crime or a self-inflicted injury, whiteness is very much not that. Whiteness actively harms others merely by existing. Imagine a contact high that you couldn’t avoid and have a severe reaction to, while the person smoking their whiteness right next to you remains oblivious. That is closer to the reality. Framed the way Heer uses it, whiteness is something that first and foremost damages the Republican Party, when the reality is that most of its damage is felt by people outside the GOP. Republicans have been rewarded for subtle and unsubtle appeals to racism. It’s true that they have gradually taken more heat for it, but the white supremacist strain running through the Tea Party movement is precisely what has given and maintained the Republicans’ Congressional majority. This isn’t recreational drug use gone out of control, it’s a loaded gun being fired into a crowd just for kicks. It’s shouting “He’s coming right for me!” and pulling the trigger on someone with his hands in the air.

Even putting the troubling implications of the drug metaphor aside, it’s yet another chapter in the demonization of people who use or are addicted to drugs. The former don’t need to be hassled to begin with–responsible recreational use, to the extent it is possible for any given drug, should be nobody’s business. And punching down at people suffering from addiction is cruel, even if it’s in service of giving the Republicans a well-deserved thrashing. I am a firm believer in considering the collateral damage of a joke, analogy, or metaphor–if you’re attacking some other group that really doesn’t deserve your scorn, just to make your point, you’re doing it wrong.

I can understand how Heer thought this was a clever rhetorical technique. Cocaine is the “white stuff,” after all, which makes it a natural fit for an analogy to whiteness. And it’s an amusing cheap shot at Republicans, I suppose, since they are the party of moral authority and the most ardent drug warriors. Nevertheless, the author’s failure to consider the full implications of his chosen metaphor left a poor taste in my mouth and harmed a piece that is otherwise bringing up real issues. Republicans really do have a serious problem, in that their political fortunes depend on a dwindling demographic to which they have committed themselves at the expense of all others. But while I have empathy for people who suffer with drug addiction–for the circumstances that lead them to use drugs, for the pain and misery inflicted, for the trauma brought upon families and loved ones–I have none for Republicans, who went down this path as a matter of cynical political expediency. What more can be said of a political party that intentionally hitched its wagons to a racist ox?

White supremacy isn’t something Republicans were driven to out of desperation, out of poverty, out of psychological disorder, or even by unfortunate mistake. It is a strategy they embraced to maintain and grow their power, a purposeful choice made at the knowing expense of millions of other people. It is not an addiction for which they have earned sympathy, but a self-inflicted wound that has earned them whatever terrible fate is coming their way.

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