Reuben Abati's violence against metaphors

In his attempt to explain away President Goodluck Jonathan's proverbial cluelessness and verbal primitivism, presidential spokesman Reuben Abati inflicted enormous violence on metaphors - and meaning itself. This ignorance is especially remarkable because Abati has a degree in Theatre Arts.

First, the background. On February 2, 2012, President Jonathan, while justifying the withdrawal of his support for the reelection of former Governor Timipre Sylva, said the following to his favoured candidate, Seriake Dickson: "You have brought people from Abuja to Yenagoa today. The only thing I want to tell you in the presence of Bayelsa State is that I was here in this place some months ago and Bayelsans stoned [Governor Timipre Sylva]. You must work hard to make sure that Bayelsans don't stone you. The day I come here and Bayelsans stone you, I will follow and stone you."

Pundits in the Nigerian media were justifiably outraged by the president's endorsement of the stoning of the former governor of his home state and his pledge to participate in a future stoning of Dickson should he behave like Sylva - whatever in the world Sylva did?

Abati accused the president's critics of "quoting him out of context" and of "interpreting him literally." And then he launched this ignorant semantic and interpretive violence on metaphors and meaning: "The commentators should know that words have embodied meanings, and that in cultural contexts, languages lend themselves to idiomatic and metaphorical expressions which may carry heavier weight as signifying codes. The word, ‘stones' in the present context need not be read literally. Rather, President Jonathan was urging Messrs Dickson and Jonah to be prepared to deliver good governance if elected into office. He was also reminding them of the cost of failing to do so, namely the anger and rejection of the people, which may not necessarily be in the form of actual ‘stone-throwing,' but may manifest as civil apathy."

First, what the heck is"in cultural contexts, languages lend themselves to idiomatic and metaphorical expressions which may carry heavier weight as signifying codes"? That's basically a hotchpotch of meaningless and sterile words strung together to overawe the ignorant but which is actually profoundly illiterate. But I will leave that - and other awkward solecisms in the essay - for now.

I had written here about the tendency for Nigerians to misuse the word "metaphor" (see my article titled "On ‘Metaphors' and ‘Puns' in Nigerian Media English") in everyday newspaper discourse. Abati has taken this a notch higher.

He said President Jonathan was being "metaphorical" when he said Bayelsans stoned former Governor Sylva and when he said he would "follow and stone" Dickson should he behave like Sylva. Oh poor metaphors! They are now hijacked by an ill-informed and lying Nigerian public official and burdened with extraneous significations in the service of explaining away presidential clumsiness.

OK, let's analyze Abati's claims. A metaphor is basically an implicit comparison between two things that are normally unlike but which share an important quality. As I wrote in my previous article on metaphors, "before we can say an expression or an event is a metaphor for anything, it has to evoke a comparison of two things that belong to different classes. For instance, when we say Goodluck Jonathan's kitchen cabinet… is peopled by pig-headed scoundrels, we are comparing the quality of stupid obstinacy characteristic of an animal (pig) with those of human beings (Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Sanusi LamidoSanusi, Labaran Maku, etc.)."

Now, if a metaphor by nature compares two dissimilar things, where is the metaphor in Jonathan's utterances? Sylva was actually LITERALLY stoned by Bayelsans. So nothing is being compared with anything here, whether implicitly or explicitly. It is just a statement - and apparently an endorsement - of the bare fact of Sylva being stoned by an angry, possibly "rented," crowd. And Jonathan's saying that he would "follow and stone" Dickson should the occasion arise in future isn't, by the wildest stretch of literary fantasy, a metaphor, either; it's a literal, vulgar, unvarnished countenance of violence. It's plain old verbal violence that is outrivaled in rawness and impropriety only by Abati's own violence against metaphors and meaning.

When Abati wrote that Jonathan's declaration that he would "follow and stone" Dickson"may not necessarily be in the form of actual ‘stone-throwing,' but may manifest as civil apathy," he betrays several things. First, he actually admits of the possibility that his boss may indeed literally stone Dickson.

In English grammar, if you say something is "not necessarily" the case, you actually mean that it may or may not be the case. In other words, it shows you're uncertain about the truth of your claims. In the context of Abati's statement, it means Jonathan may indeed literally stone Dickson and he may not. This fact is confirmed even further in the other half of the phrase where Abati uses the modal auxiliary verb "may" (which also signals uncertainty) to express the far-fetched and illogical claim that stone-throwing is a metaphor for "civil apathy." If metaphors compare the similar qualities in two otherwise dissimilar things, how can something as intense and as violent as stone throwing be compared to something as mild and as temperate as civil apathy?

So, Abati ensnared himself in a mesh of irreconcilable contradictions. His ambivalent and semantically violent claim that Jonathan's threat to stone Dickson "may not necessarily be in the form of actual ‘stone-throwing,' but may manifest as civil apathy," concedes that the president's critics may indeed be justified in assuming that he literally meant that he would stone the governor of his state. So in spite of his prefatory cocksure certainty that Nigerian media pundits quoted his boss too literally and out of context, the tentativeness and tepidity of the actual defense he offered of his boss's verbal miscues functioned to strengthen the case of his critics.

That is what happens when you're wittingly dishonest or outright intellectually incompetent.



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