Thursday, September 24, 2009

We are all boiling frogs

James Fallows objects noisily to the ubiquitous metaphor of the frog that boils to death in a pot of water when the heat is turned up gradually; he calls for alternatives. Andrew Sullivan seconds. Many submissions have to do with smell or noise to which we grow acclimated, and some with gradually increasing one's capacity for pain or discomfort or with gradually deteriorating capacities.

None of these quite wash. What gives the boiling frog metaphor its bite (and it's a good metaphor - that's how it got to be a cliche) is that the frog ends up dead. Unfortunately, the best analogues may be the things that really kill us: clogging arteries, growing cancers. In fact the boiling water is mortality. Every year is a degree.

1 comment:

  1. I am going to rip this comment from language log because I like it:

    David Smith said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 11:12 am

    We shouldn't be trying to save this story. It is bad politics. The moral of the story isn't just that small incremental changes can eventually lead to big bad changes, it's that the masses are too stupid to recognize that X shift in policy, no matter how innocuous it seems, is going to lead to catastrophe. It elevates whoever tells the tale into a wise prophet who is somehow immune to the common foolishness, and whoever believes him into a member of the elect who is laughed at and persecuted now but will one day be revered for anticipating the disaster. As far as political proverbs go it is about as cheap and self-serving as it gets. The fact that it isn't true tells us something important, i.e. that people (and frogs) are not as stupid as all that, and don't need some demagogue to save them from themselves.