Figures of Speech

So, I’ve received (and removed) a handful of mostly off-topic comments on my post “How Privilege Proves Itself” that focus in part or in whole on my analysis of the use of the word “lynched” by the subject of the article linked in the post. This one point is coming up often enough that I’d like to address it.

The defense I keep hearing is “it’s just a figure of speech”.

The thing is, people offering a defense are missing the point to begin with. Sure, I did mention the problems of using this particular word as a figure of speech, in passing. Because hey… they’re kind of important, right? But the point of my post doesn’t rest on those objections, and even if they are thrown out, the question of, “What exactly did he mean by this?” still remains, as does the logic behind my answer to that question, and the implications I draw from it.

See, so many people use “just a figure of speech” as if to say “it didn’t mean anything.” Some people even make it explicit: “Sheesh, it doesn’t mean anything, it’s just a figure of speech!”

The problem with that is this is the exact opposite of what “a figure of speech” is. Figures of speech, by definition, mean something. A figure of speech—to put it very broadly—is when you say one thing in order to convey another thing. When you say one thing in order to convey nothing… well, that’s babble? Politispeak? Blog comments?

Figures of speech aren’t literal, but they do have meaning. It means something that he said the other person would be told to shut up, but he himself would be “lynched”. My question was what the intended message behind that word is. Saying that it’s a figure of speech is equivalent to saying that the message consists of words. It doesn’t actually tell us anything.

There are only two real possibilities. One is that he fears an actual worse consequence for himself, in which case we should ask what that consequence is. The other is that he wishes to paint the consequences to himself, however inconsequential, as being worse so he chooses to use an emotionally charged word. He’s gonna get lynched. Geez, they’re gonna lynch ’em. A guy can’t speak his mind anymore, he’ll get lynched by the feminazis, right?

The thing is, you can say things like that, and as soon as someone ask what those words mean… well, they don’t mean anything, do they? It’s a great rhetorical dodge. The emotional impact of comparing criticism to lynchings and feminists to Nazis is still there, always there, but you can insist that the words are “just figures of speech” and thus don’t mean anything, et voila… it’s your own instant Get Out Of Consequences Free Card.

But that’s ludicrous. Obviously the words mean something. I mean, this isn’t some weird postmodern experimental dada anti-conversation, right?

And so when the dude says that he’d be lynched if he spoke about feminism, my question—for him, or the audience, or anyone who cares—is, “Well, what actually does that mean? What exactly are you afraid of?”

My question is somewhat rhetorical, as I provided what I thought to be the most likely answer in the post. I’m open to hearing other answers. What I don’t have a lot of patience for is non-answers like “it’s just a figure of speech”. Yes, and this post is just words, and words are just sounds or sights that people make when they want to say something.

The question is, what do they mean?