In a Stew Over Toxic Gumbo
Sunday, 18 September 2005
A very insensitive metaphor starts the blog…
After years of contemplation, I was finally pushed over the edge by the phrase “toxic gumbo”. Years of political propaganda – not enough! Years of canny commentaries – not enough! Years of product placements – not enough! Nope. It was “toxic gumbo” that finally fed me up.
I write about metaphor.
I had long thought to observe modern metaphor use/abuse from an anthropological perspective. This is needed, in order that future anthropologists may better determine the differences between what we say and what we think and feel. The subtleties of language are the true spice – a pinch defines a potful.
The metaphor “toxic gumbo” was originally coined by Ron Nixon in 2001 to describe the buildup of pollutants in the soils and waters of the same region. When this metaphor was reborn to describe the putrid watery mess that had become of New Orleans as a result of Hurricane Katrina, I had nearly lost my appetite for the news. “How could they…?!”, I thought.
To imply, metaphorically, that there was any palatability to this new tepid, fecal, urban swamp was to make light of the horrendous conditions that people there were living in. To inject this metaphor specifically with the Cajun staple “gumbo” was to target the levity further and straight to the hearts of those suffering. Not the more general metaphors for edible solid/liquid mixes such as “stew”, “brew” or “soup”, but rather one that associates itself specifically with the victims of the disaster.
Let’s examine this by substituting the elements of the metaphor. First we’ll look at the metaphor “toxic gumbo”:
1) Floodwater turned the city of New Orleans into a toxic mixture of dead things and water.
2) New Orleans is known for a soup called “gumbo”.
3) Soup is a mixture of dead things and water.
Thus: “The flood turned New Orleans into a toxic gumbo.”
(I need not elaborate on what the implied “meat” of this gumbo is.)
Now we’ll find a tragedy of similar scale. Lets try New York’s 9-11:
1) An attack crushed New York buildings, and the people within.
2) New York is known as the Big Apple.
3) Applesauce is crushed apples.
Thus: “The falling towers turned New York into the Big Applesauce.”
Surely, had anyone published such a callous phrase, whether in jest or in earnest, they would’ve been severely tortured by the media. Yet this metaphor is quite proximate to the contrarily popular “toxic gumbo”. This may speak hidden volumes about how seriously each event was taken. The attacks of 9-11 came by surprise, while hurricanes are old news before they happen. Has this familiarity bred this contempt?
I’m not speaking as a representative of the people of New Orleans, or their tastes or sensitivities. I’m speaking of the undertone of levity – thus insensitivity – that is being conveyed to the viewing public. That is, this witty, made-to-measure metaphor serves more the author’s ego than the public’s need to understand the true direness of the situation. To infuse the statement with wit is to water down the supposedly intended tragic message.
But it was not simply the re-coining of such a belittling metaphor. It was that every newscast on every station I saw had followed through with this insensitivity – teaching us through example that such subtly disparaging language is not only acceptable, but even somehow cool. I am angrily reminded of the trademark acerbic witticisms in Arnold Schwarzenegger movies.
Sadly, and to our shame, the message delivered by the phrase “toxic gumbo” is one that echoes through much of modern North-American culture: “It’s cool to be cruel”.