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Essential ism, construction ism, & figurative language: Thinking in metaphor

Essential ism, construction ism, and  figurative language: thinking in metaphor

Introduction

While the 2014 debates between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait concerning race in contemporary America were widely discussed throughout the popular press, perhaps no one single aspect of the discussion was more frequently cited than the infamous “basketball” metaphor concerning Barack Obama.  In the article “Obama, Coates, Poverty and Culture,” Jonathan Chait responds to Coates’s criticisms of the President by declaring that Barack Obama’s moral exhortations to the black community do not amount to a denial of the reality of racist and oppressive social structures. Instead,

…[a] person worries about the things that he can control. If I’m watching a basketball game in which the officials are systematically favoring one team over another (let’s call them Team A and Team Duke) as an analyst, the officiating bias may be my central concern. But if I’m coaching Team A, I’d tell my players to ignore the biased officiating. Indeed, I’d be concerned the bias would either discourage them or make them lash out, and would urge them to overcome it. That’s not the same as denying bias. It’s a sensible practice of encouraging people to concentrate on the things they can control. (Chait 4-5)

However, in the article “Black Pathology and the Closing of the American Mind,” Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds Chait that

…[his] metaphor is incorrect. Barack Obama isn’t the coach of “Team Negro,” he is the commissioner of the league… Team Negro is not—and should not be—confused about the commissioner’s primary role. (Coates 9)

Although he acknowledges that Obama is an important representative figure of the African American community, Coates cogently points out that the mandate of the President is not to exhort its underclasses towards personal reform, but rather to preside over the structural transformation of the nation.

            Indeed, the degree to which Coates and Chait’s conflict over the “basketball” metaphor came to stand in for their debate as a whole gestures toward the very powerful nature of figurative language in debates over race, society, and politics.  From colonial governor John Winthrop’s famous declaration in 1630 that New England society will be “a city on upon a hill, the eyes of all people upon us” (a Biblical metaphor) to George W. Bush’s infamous labeling of adversary nations as an “axis of evil” (a “dead” metaphor originally drawn from early astronomy), the figurative powers of metaphor have long been a crucial tool both in making sense of complex social and political relations and creating new forms of social and political language.

            Of course, these metaphors can sometimes go REALLY wrong.  (http://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/1/13/14267848/goat-obamacare-metaphor-cartoon)

Assignment Instructions

For this assignment, you must work with a recent book by sociologist Ann Morning that touches on the ongoing debate between biological essentialist accounts of race (i.e., those which have underscored forms of scientific racism to suggest that racial categories reflect real, natural, and “essential” differences that exist within the human population) vs. social constructionist accounts of race (which examine how “race classifications” are fluid set of  historical, economic, ideological, and socially mediated set of beliefs about the human population).  Although many humanists and social scientists believe that biological essentialism (and its manifestation in scientific racism) is a relic of an older and now-repudiated pseudo-science, in fact biological essentialism still pervades whole areas of contemporary scientific thought and teaching.

For this assignment you will choose from any short sub-section from chapters 2-7 of Morning’s book, contextualize the sub-section by connecting it to Morning’s broader arguments in Chapter 1 of the book (i.e., the introduction to the book), and the develop your own metaphor to help elucidate or explain the topic or argument of the subsection that you’re working with.

Step 1: Read chapter one (“Introduction) from Ann Morning’s recent book How Scientists Think of Race (2011). 

Step 2:  After reading the introduction chapter, choose a small sub-section within the article or chapter (a sub-section is usually only a few pages and usually has a sub-heading to mark it).  Find a topic that interests you and, if you like, you can use the index at the back of the book to help refine your search (e.g., sports, sickle-cell anemia, anthropology text books, and so forth). After you’ve chosen a subsection, produce a report using the following THREE-STEP METHOD

I). Summarize the idea/topic discussed in the sub-section of Morning’s book that you’re working with (i.e. paraphrase the topic you’re working with).

II). Relate the idea of the sub-section to the broader arguments of the book found in the introduction. (i.e., contextualize the topic you’re working with)

III). Develop or analyze a metaphor to engage with the idea(s) of the sub-section you’re working with (i.e., analogize the topic you’re working with).

--Your short report consists of nothing more but these three things (a template will be available to download to help streamline the production of this report.

HOW TO DEVELOP OR ANALYZE A METHOR

There are several methods, but I’ve identified three that I think are most appropriate for this assignment.

Option 1) Develop a metaphor to describe or explain a particular author’s description, position, or argument on the issue

            In the Coates-Chait debate, Chait uses the basketball metaphor to describe the progressive-liberal position of Obama (and himself).  This is an example of a metaphor explaining or clarifying a particular position or argument. Develop your own metaphor to explain or clarify the position or argument of a particular article

To do so, you may want to imagine yourself explaining the position to someone who misunderstands the point of the article or the issue (as Chait believes Coates does) and using  the metaphor to offer a differentway of thinking about it.  Although the subject of the essentialist-constructivist debate is highly serious, I expect you to have some fun with this assignment—be as creative as possible in developing your metaphor without losing sight of your goal to explain and clarify!

Option 2) Develop a metaphor to evaluate or critique a particular article’s description, position, or argument on the issue

            In the Coates-Chait debate, Coates uses the analogy of Obama as team commissioner to critique both Obama’s (and Chait’s) over-valorization of personal and moral responsibility.  This is an example of a metaphor used to evaluate or critique a particular position or argument. Develop your own metaphor to evaluate or critique the position or argument of a particular article.

            To do so, you may want to imagine yourself arguing for or against the issue with someone who holds an opposing viewpoint (as Coates believes Chait does), and using the metaphor to render a more persuasive evaluation of the strengths or weaknesses of the a particular viewpoint. Although the subject of the essentialist-constructivist debate is highly serious, I expect you to have some fun with this assignment—be as creative as possible in developing your metaphor without losing sight of your goal to evaluate and critique!

Alternate: Option 3) Find a particularly compelling use of metaphor within the book.

            In the Coates-Chait debate, Coates ends his first piece by noting that “Racism is just the wind, here. Racism is just the rain” (“The Secret Lives of Inner-City Black Males,” 5). This is an example of a particularly compelling use of metaphor, one that is rich with analytical possibilities.  Find an example of the use of metaphor within the piece that your working with.

To do so, you identify the metaphor, summarize the context under which the metaphor occurs, then analyze the metaphor itself.  Questions you might ask yourself may include, what two ideas are the metaphors trying to connect? Is the metaphor apt? What “work” does the metaphor do in making a point more memorable or more intelligible? What problems does this metaphor risk? Does the metaphor distort or manipulate more than it clarifies? What gets “lost in translation” from literal to figurative language?

Format

--the length of the assignment is three double-spaced pages (around 750-900 words) max. This is a very short assignment—you’re aiming for quality over quantity. I’m interested in the strength of your analysis and in the creativity of the figurative language which you develop.

-written work must be typed, double-spaced, 12 pt. font, and follow the conventions of academic writing, including the use of a formal tone and a presumption of ignorance on the part of the reader (e.g., all of your ideas about must be carefully introduced and explained, and your references to the course materials must be cited).  As an interdisciplinary course, you may use Chicago, APA, or MLA-style to cite and format your work. If you are more comfortable working with a different citation style, please get prior approval from me. 

Assignment Template

***Assignment must be completed by filling in the following form (copy and paste into Word .doc and upload as Word .doc or .pdf on Polylearn).

Your Name:

Section I: Summarize the idea of the sub-section from the particular article/chapter you’re working with (choose subsection from anywhere in chapters 2-7)

Section II: Connect the idea/topic to the broader arguments from which the work is derived (connect subsection topic/idea to chapter 1: introduction)

Section III: Develop or analyze the metaphor

Word count (subtract for template):

Work(s) Cited

Essential ism, construction ism, & figurative language: Thinking in metaphor

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