The Message in the Metaphor

We may have forgotten Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase – the medium is the message – but its aptness hasn’t faded; if anything I find my mind wandering towards McLuhan’s prescience quite a lot these days. (No matter that the Americans have co-opted him – apparently, according to The New Yorker, McLuhan was American.)

Whatever his … provenance, McLuhan’s basic point is still genius: how the message is delivered matters as much as the message itself.  And I would add that as important as the medium, moreover, is the metaphor inside.

Take the ostensibly weighty piece in last weekend’s Globe where this mega important person, vice-chair of BMO Financial Group no less (I gather the stodgy name, “Bank of Montreal”, had become too twee for this grand, globalized institution) describes the imminent dangers from the “new world order” we are so fortunate to inhabit.

Rife with boardroom logic and market metaphors, the piece explains how “broad structural trends are reshaping our world”. In fact, we face great “challenges” (in quotes because I loathe the word and were I to sink so low as to use it in a sentence, please, just shoot me) and need “fiscal-policy exit strategies” (um, pardon? why would fiscal policy require an exit strategy, particularly since it seems to depend entirely on the whims and paranoid delusions of the prime minister?) . Most important, the Canadian “productivity level” is (brace yourselves) is “only 75 per cent of that of the U.S.A”.

All together now: Produce!

I initially read the piece thinking it would contain some sort of insight. Alas, mega important or no, your man is as hollow as a bamboo shoot and not nearly as ecologically friendly. Worse, the piece makes no sense. Once you strip away the gobbledygook and the stirring pamphlet rhetoric (“tip of the proverbial iceberg”, “sapped public trust” and “gaping fissures in the body politic”) the sum total of the argument appears to be that, well, there’s been this process, globalization (which is how the banking crisis went global), and, er, we are getting get older so demographics are changing (no?! really), and, oh, then all this stuff happened like Y2K (Y2K?), 9-11, the war in Iraq and so forth – so, Canada needs to sit up and pay attention. By which I assume he means Canadian banks and financial institutions (even though the only reason they did well was that Chretien put the brakes on their megalomania back in the last century).

Buried in the market metaphors and glib nonsense, however, is a frightening implication; namely, that business – money, productivity, doing well in the “global economy” – is all that counts.

Apparently it was written somewhere – on some stone or burning bush or book of ages (don’t feel bad, I missed it too) – that the key to life, the universe and everything is really business. And New world Orders being what they are, to succeed within it one must produce. Apparently, the only value human endeavour has is in the goods it produces. And productivity, an obsolete measure of input/output if ever there was one (seeing as how it originates with factories like the one that made the Model T) – person hours expended for goods manufactured is our sole measure of worth.

One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.  Art, music, laughter, eduction, family, the environment, friendship, silly walks – zero. Business and money: important.

What”s worse is that far too many people take this kind of bunkum seriously. To the point where such nonsense phrases as “global drivers of change” have entered the lexicon and get invited to all the best parties.

So we forget, or just don’t know, the extent to which this type of language, this level of discourse, these metaphors, affect us and our thinking. The extent to which such language and thinking diminishes us. No longer does every man’s death diminish me, as Donne wrote; today, it is the market and its metaphors that make up our moral centre.

Take just one of those phrases, “production”. Raising productivity is simplicity itself. Just dump factory waste into the river as is done in China (poisoning nearby villages with the black muck the runoff makes) or pay your workers as close to minimum wage as makes no difference. Output is easy to keep high when workers’ hours are kept just below the level at which you are legally obliged to pay benefits (as WalMart does in the U.S.) and productivity should be a breeze if your work place about as safe as an Iraqi road side and you don’t provide workers with protective gear as they use dangerous machinery or chemicals. By all means, have young workers use dangerous machinery wearing flip flops, as they do in all kinds of places.

The real “challenge” is to make production a viable part of a social world in which people can at least hope to thrive.

I am so tired of reading and hearing this nonsense perpetuated. While I do concede that a reasonable standard of living is essential and poverty sucks, how did we get to a place, here, in Canada, where we turn to bankers for advice on how to approach life? How did studies done in second rate economics departments, with college freshmen, become the bloody Oracle? (Oh, you know what I mean. Those snippets where they have people engage in the Prisoner’s Dilemma and discover we’re all as selfish and petty and unpleasant as economics has always told us we are.) Anyone stop to think that the conclusions are based on what an eighteen-year-old thinks? We were all there once. And frankly, I’d hate to think anyone was basing anything on what I thought at that age.

My point with all this curmudgeonly ranting is that these market metaphors have taken on too much power and it’s time to say ‘enough’. We saw what the result of that market belief was: financial annihilation. Unemployment. Environmental degradation. Surely life is a little more complicated than these barren business narratives would have us believe.

Remember, it’s our belief – our tacit agreement – that keeps these metaphors alive.  And we all know that aging does not mean we are are liabilities, that life is not just about the market, that sure, we face challenges but the solution isn’t with the bankers who got us into this mess.

Good grief. If this is order, give me chaos. At least it has the potential to be amusing.