There’s a thing in the disabled community called the spoon metaphor. This was developed by a woman with lupus as a way to explain how her disease affects her, even when it’s not visible. While I don’t have a physical disability, I do have mental illness to deal with, and so sometimes I feel more comfortable explaining things to people through this kind of metaphor.
There are other metaphors like this, for privilege and for being able. Metaphors about difficulty setting, smoke, and even My Little Pony. The most basic is a bases metaphor: when you have privilege you start at first or second base, and when you don’t have privilege you start at home and have to work harder to get all the way around. I’ve found metaphors can be extremely helpful, both for explaining things to other people and for reframing things in my own life. One of the most important things that metaphors can do for us is to help us move away from charged language (like privilege) and move into a place where we can start to assess the parallels of situations instead.
In general, we think in metaphors, often unconsciously. Most of the abstract language we use began as metaphor. The metaphors we use can change how we approach things (those who view time as linear often approach their lives differently than those who view it as cyclical), and metaphors can help us lay down different paths in our mind that are almost like intellectual shortcuts.
Each of these metaphors gives us different aspects of privilege. They highlight different things, whether it be starting with less resources as someone who is not privileged, or having something to help you along when you do have privilege, or the fact that you don’t notice privilege when you have it. That’s one of the things I love about metaphors: each one brings something new to the table. Of course things means that we always need to incorporate a variety of metaphors in order to have a well rounded understanding of any concept.
I feel that privilege is a place where intersubjectivity is extremely important, and all of these metaphors together highlight it. I’m a skeptical type person and run in many atheist and skeptical circles. Often in these circles I hear cries of “objectivity!” shouted out about how we should approach the world. If something can’t be objectively verified, then it’s useless. These have always rubbed me the wrong way, since true objectivity is pretty damn impossible (you’ll never escape your own perspective, or the distortion your own senses create: we’re always trapped in our own subjectivity), and I generally prefer intersubjectivity, which is the process of incorporating as many subjective viewpoints as possible to come closer and closer to objectivity.
Privilege is a beautiful place to do this. Privilege is an experiential thing, just like discrimination. These metaphors point towards the experience of being aware of someone else’s privilege and your own lack of privilege. This is not something you can measure, or objectively point to, but rather we can build up a picture of it through intersubjectivity. If we each try to take a stab at defining how we see and experience privilege, then we can add more and more pieces to how we view it, build it up into a more cohesive whole that has dimension and depth. Metaphors are a beautiful way to do this because narratives can’t give us concrete elements to focus on. Metaphors pull certain pieces of the experience and highlight them. So each individual might have a preferred metaphor that rings true to them, and whose particular elements embody and sum up their experience. These give us more discrete elements to combine.
I think that the importance of metaphorical thinking is lost in many other places. We forget that it allows us to view our knowledge in a different way and allows us to highlight certain things that can be brought together. The importance of multiple metaphors is certainly not highlighted. I think that these could be important tools in science, in politics, or even in pop culture. I wish more people would use their metaphors.