Discrimination and Mixed Metaphors

Monday, March 7, 2011

In light of some intellectual talk over this weekend, I have been thinking a lot about how discrimination works in our society. I believe that it comes from mixed metaphors.

Have you ever thought about how stereotypes form? Typically, they come about because of a categorization projected from the majority group to the minority, regardless of how large that minority might actually be (i.e. these are women, these are Muslims, these are fat people). It doesn't matter how diverse this group is, their traits in the perception of the viewer are seen as generalized - a fat person is always unhealthy, a Muslim person is always religiously dogmatic, a woman is always a nurturer.
These stereotypes eventually get mixed up with our value judgments of the terms that the majority group has attached to them; since Americans view unhealthy as bad, religious dogmatism (other than in Christian sects) as a threat, and nurturing as a positive, but weak personality trait, we start churning out reductionist terms and mixed metaphors.

- A fat person is bad. A fat person can be compared to someone who is stupid because they don't have the capacity to maintain their health.
- A Muslim will support terrorism because of their religious dogmatism. That is bad. We are threatened by all Muslims.
- Women are weak and therefore are relegated to their role in the house because that's the only place they will be safe.

See the logic here? Even if you are not in the majority group, you are exposed to these mixed metaphors and internalize them. These ideas of what is "bad" and "good" are then projected onto situations where they make absolutely no sense. We start to run wild with our metaphors and they ultimately have us making claims that we ourselves don't agree with. For instance, I am all three of these categories: an overweight (fat), Muslim woman. Would you make the leap in logic when talking to me that I am a domestic nurturer who is religiously dogmatic, supports terrorism, and am too stupid to take care of my health?

Even if you have not met me, these conclusions seem a little harsh to be drawn from a first encounter. But these ideas are rooted so deep that they envelop us everywhere, and when we make general statements even pointing towards them, we are hurting people. Think of how many times you see fatness compared to stupidity in the media, for example, and you will understand how prevalent it is. Even if we may not see ourselves making those connections, they are there and they influence us.

So, am I saying that we need to rid ourselves of metaphors entirely? No, of course not. Metaphors can be a helpful tool in explaining complex social situations. But I believe that people do not monitor themselves nearly as much as they should when their construction of these metaphors is at hand. Essentially, they play into the stereotypes that surround us and hurt certain groups. I ask that everyone try to watch their metaphors and logical conclusions before putting them out there.

What do you think? Does discrimination come from mixing metaphors or is there another factor involved here? How would you check metaphors? Would you? Let me know.

You may also be interested in reading my opinion articles The South Asian Question and Oops, Your Islamophobia is Showing.