Now, I don’t want to beat a dead horse…. The words slipped out before I even thought about them. I was teaching a class, and I was getting close to crossing the line from informative to pedantic. It was time to change the subject. And how did I do it? By telling the class that I don’t beat dead horses.
Immediately, several thoughts sprang to mind. Does anyone really want to beat a dead horse? If not, why am I making it clear that I do not belong to this non-existent group? And how did this rather gruesome metaphor become part of everyday language? Just consider the image it’s trying to create. You’re standing, probably in the middle of a road somewhere, and there’s a horse dead at your feet. Instead of feeling some twinge of sadness for the death of this majestic creature, you’re repeatedly pummeling it with the whip or rod in your hand. What kind of monster are you?
Fortunately, as I’ve made clear, I’m not like you. I don’t beat dead horses. That’s a relief.
We are really violent people. I know that’s not news to anyone. But it still struck me the other day as I reflected on the violence in even our most casual metaphors.
Many of those metaphors involve violence toward animals for some reason. I can completely understand why someone would want to skin a cat. But who in their right mind tries to kill two birds with one stone? Not only is that probably impossible, but if the birds are small enough to kill with a stone, why bother? If they’re bigger than that, why throw stones at them in the first place? Haven’t you seen The Birds? And breaking a camel’s back with a piece of straw is just mean.
But we save our best metaphors for ourselves. If your friends don’t throw you under the bus, they’ll probably throw you to the wolves instead. But that’s only if they’re the kind of friends who would stab you in the back. It’s possible that they’re just trying to beat some sense into you. And you should really listen, because you don’t want to bite the hand that feeds you. If you do shoot yourself in the foot like that, they’ll leave you alone and give you just enough rope to hang yourself.
Having known a few people who committed suicide, that last one always gets me. The “innocence” of a violent metaphor fades when life reminds you of the reality behind the image.
And it’s not just our everyday language. Almost every sphere of life has its own violent metaphors. In sports, we pound the other team to make sure we don’t get slaughtered. Or, if it’s a close game, we might face sudden death. Politicians conduct campaigns against the other side until they have their opponent in their crosshairs and move in for the kill shot. In business, you defend your position by bringing out the heavy artillery. Otherwise, you might get ambushed by the other side. After all, it’s a dog eat dog world.
And on it goes.
Now, before we overreact, we should keep a couple of things in mind. First, violent metaphors have probably been around since the invention of language. You’ll find them in every age and culture. So people who argue that our violent metaphors reflect deep-rooted problems in our society are only partially right. It would be more accurate to say that they reflect the deep-rooted problems of living in a broken world, problems that face all humans everywhere.
Second, I’m not sure that we should try to escape our violent metaphors entirely. A good metaphor is a creative use of language that draws on lived experience to make a point in powerful ways. And, as long as metaphor draws on the real experiences of real people in a this broken world, those metaphors will contain a fair dose of violence. Language scrubbed clean from any taint of violence may be “nicer,” but it would also be stale and lifeless. Ignoring violence won’t make our language more Christian, only less effective.
But trivializing violence isn’t the answer either. And I do wonder about the impact of casually and thoughtlessly sprinkling our everyday speech, and even our sermons, with violent metaphors.
So violent metaphors are a double-edged sword. Used intentionally and creatively, I think they can be a powerful way of communicating important truths to everyday people by drawing on their shared experiences of a broken and violent world. Used casually and carelessly, I worry that they trivialize violence and normalize violent ways of viewing the world.