Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Mixing our metaphors

This is a bit half thought-out, but one of the things I've been thinking about lately is how the financial crisis must be affecting people's understanding of individuals and organisations. What has happened must have altered the basic models people use for understanding both, to put it mildly. Pre-crisis, many in the financial sector seemed almost literally 'out of touch'. This is based on the idea that many metaphors for hierarchy and importance are based on height. Somehow the bankers were 'above' us, or we were 'below' them, because (I think) our basic conceptual model of importance is actually spatial, because our metaphors are rooted in physical experience.

Now, however, the masters of the universe have been proven to be less than impressive. So how do we respond mentally? Our conceptual model can surely no longer be based on them being above us, they are on the same level, within reach. Unfortunately I'm sure this must make a difference to people's willingness to physically attack them, but that's another story.

Another good way of thinking about how people models have changed - echoing Warren Buffet's line about people swimming naked - is the idea that bankers have been unmasked, or revealed as just as ordinary as the rest of us. The curtain has been pulled back. Again mentally this puts them on the same level - their previous elevation was based on false construction. And I think this must do some serious damage to the standing of those in the financial world, because for a while people will tend to assume that this applies across the board.

By coincidence whilst I was thinking about this I came across a great passage early into The Great Crash which puts across exactly the same idea:
In the autumn of 1929 the mightiest Americans were, for a brief time, revealed as human beings. Like most humans, most of the time, they did some very foolish things. On the whole, the greater the earlier reputation for omniscience, the more serene the previous idiocy, the greater the foolishness now exposed. Things that in other times were concealed by a heavy facade of dignity now stood exposed, for the panic suddenly, almost obscenely, snatched this facade away.

One to think about some more...

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