Metaphor as manipulation

Biological warfare is a term more commonly associated with terrifying sci-fi scenarios than with gestating children. Yet if you believe this article from Aeon.co, pregnancy is pretty much Womb War III:

Pregnancy is a lot more like war than we might care to admit […]

The mammal mother works hard to stop her children from taking more than she is willing to give. The children fight back with manipulation, blackmail and violence. Their ferocity is nowhere more evident than in the womb.

The endometrium is ‘fortress-like’ against the blastocysts attempt to implant, while placental cells from the latter “rampage” and “slaughter” and “invade” the mother. If it successfully implants, the growing foetus “manipulates” its mother by emitting hormones into her bloodstream that will result in the foetus getting more resources out of her. In turn the mother’s body fights to disable these foetal hormones, and the ‘tug-of-war’ cycle repeats itself.

blastocyst
That evil smile tho

Goodness me, it’s enough to turn anyone off the idea of pregnancy. Of course, pregnancy can actually be life-threatening and can wreak irreparable if not entirely incapacitating damage on your body. But this article isn’t primarily a warning about its dangers or a call for improvements in maternity medicine. It is intended to tell a fascinating tale. Yes, a story; while I did learn some interesting facts about gestation, the point of the article seems more an attempt to change the “narrative”, away from the sentimental Madonna and child light in which pregnancy is sometimes portrayed, and towards the light of the evolutionary fight for survival. These different ways of portraying the same facts are effected via metaphor.

Madonna and chlid
Not true to life

The dominant metaphors employed in this account are to do with war and manipulation, with the foetus the vampiric aggressor and the mother only unwillingly self-sacrificing. The metaphors work because they exploit similarities that really exist: the blastocyst burrows into the womb lining as an invading army would burrow into a defending wall, for example. But the manipulative invading army is not entirely similar to the foetus: aggression and manipulation and invasion are acts associated with fully-grown people equipped with agency and ill-will. Small foetuses don’t have a will, much less ill-will towards their maternal environment. Metaphors work by exploiting resemblance, but all things resemble each other to some degree and no two things resemble each other perfectly, so we shouldn’t think that, just because an extended metaphor is explanatorily useful or striking, the resemblance must be complete.

We might be inclined to bear a corresponding ill-will towards any potential foetuses in our environs on the basis of this article. But this would be unfair. If we do so, we succumb to metaphorical manipulation.

Metaphorical manipulation is not unique to this article. A couple of other examples that came to mind are the following:

1. Research as rape

What happens when you think you notice some similarities between conducting research that involves an interviewer interviewing people to gather information, and rape? Well, rape becomes a metaphor for research. But then people read too much into the metaphor, and research of this type takes on the other connotations associated with rape: violence, power disparities, patriarchy … Thus research of this type becomes as unacceptable as actual rape. In this unfortunate case, we seem to end up jettisoning the distinction between researcher and subject of research, and any claim to objectivity, and end up with autoethnography, where people get academia points for publishing their diary entries, and which I am yet to be convinced is not a pile of bull. If I’m right in implying that this is the effect of reading too much into a metaphor, this is not a good outcome.

2. Violent words

Another example is the now popular claim that words can be violent. Words can be metaphorically violent, in that they share some of the characteristics of violence, namely that they can convey disdain and cause harm. But they are not literally violent, in the sense that violence normally refers to physical harm, whereas words do not cause physical harm. But calling words violent means that people are starting to take offensive words as just as severely morally reprehensible as actual violence. This lands us in all sorts of weird situations where actual violence is supposedly not violent, but words are definitely violent, and you wonder whether you’ve stepped through the looking glass or something:

3. Confusion about what’s real

Laura laurel
Laura and her laurel tiara

I’m also reminded of a poem I studied in undergrad… Petrarch’s poems constantly refer to the poet’s beloved Laura as a laurel tree (“lauro” = laurel) and other things that sound like her name (“l’auro” = gold, or “l’aura” = dawn). In one poem, the poet describes himself taking a nice walk along the river. Lo and behold, under an actual laurel tree he sees a white doe (also symbolising Laura). Maximal confusion ensues, as he’s so transfixed by this vision of what appears to be, but is only really a symbol of, his real beloved that he falls in the river.

Perhaps we think there might have been a problem here even before he fell in the river. How dare he compare a real person to trees and animals?! It’s the same outrage that meets the appellative ‘doll’ for women: this is problematic because it seems to attribute to women all the features that dolls have, namely, being an inanimate object. But women are not inanimate objects, and calling them dolls seems to imply that they are less than human, which is insulting. If you’re cringing at ‘doll’, then you already know that metaphors have the manipulative power I’ve been talking about.

I’m all for metaphors. They enliven things, and I doubt we could get by, in any discipline of academia or in our daily lives, without them. The moral of the story is just to take them with a pinch of salt.

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