Playing With Fire

How we humans love to play with fire? And how dangerous, even disastrous, our playing around can be? Metaphors wonderfully enrich our language and our thought. How dull our language and our thought would be without them. Yet they are also dangerous, as dangerous indeed as playing with fire if we let them muddle us and make us mistake the image for the reality. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet but anything other than a rose which we might decide to call a rose will get us into very embarrassing situations.  Today we seem hell bent on confusing our metaphors with reality and playing with fire as we do so. The family, one of nature’s and society’s foundation stones, is being messed about with in a way that is akin to playing with fire. We do so at the risk of pulling down our house on top of us. Indeed we have already begun to do so. The family in nature is a real thing. It is not just a nice idea, an image we have dreamed up for our own sentimental reasons. The animal world has no problem seeing this. It is we humans who seem to be getting the whole thing muddled.  In the animal kingdom the male comes together with the female and they mate. All other things being equal, offspring are begotten and for as long as is necessary and in the manner appropriate to each species, the offspring are nurtured to the point where they become independent and can go off and do likewise. Wonderful. It all happens as day follows night. Sometimes, it is observed, there can be confusion. Males mess around with males and get things wrong. This is all fairly exceptional and whatever happens is never set up as a model for future behaviour of the species. Eventually they all get on with the business of life. If they don’t they become extinct. It is the humans, poor creatures, who get themselves into trouble. Part of the trouble comes from their capacity to think and talk to each other, reflect on themselves and use beautiful language to do so. Our current confusion over the nature of family is a case in point. For aeons – and I don’t know when it started – we have been using the concept of family as a metaphor. Family of nations, family of businesses (ASDA is billed in Britain as “part of the Walmart family”), spiritual families, and so on. There’s nothing wrong with that. What is wrong is when we begin to confuse the real thing in nature with the thing which we are using it to help us describe. Occasionally in the animal kingdom we hear of a lost offspring of two progenitors attaching itself to other members of the species, indeed sometimes across species, and becoming a member of a family. All this illustrates is the power of the real, the natural power of the family rooted in the nature of the animals themselves. It works for nature because it is natural. Misunderstand its true nature, contaminate it with false sentimentality and it will no longer work.  Sadly this seems to be what we are doing. We have been misled by our metaphors. We want to call marriage what are patently not marriages. We want to call families what are patently not families. Which brings us back to the rose. A rose by any other name will smell as sweet. A true family by any other name will work as well. But if we call a potato a rose and send a bouquet of them to someone we love we know what will happen. Equally, if we concoct a ménage of any old kind and dare to call it a family then we will not have a family – and it will not give us the natural outcome that the true natural product will give. Furthermore, while our society may get away with a scattering of such arrangements on an ad hoc basis, it will not get away without dire consequences if we riddle it with them. Some societies are already so riddled. Do we really need to spell out the consequences? They are already there for all to see.  

Try this as a sample. Anthony Reynard was, until last year, part of the senior management team of one of the largest primary schools in the UK. He reflected recently in The Daily Telegraph:

“11 years after Tony Blair proclaimed “Education! Education! Education!” to be New Labour’s priority, schools are opening their doors to more poorly behaved pupils with greater learning difficulties who, in turn, are emerging from a growing number of broken or poorly functioning families.

 “Last year, having agonised over whether to leave a profession I loved, I finally turned my back on a position in a large London primary school. I decided that I had had enough after dealing with the behaviour of a boy who had shot himself with a handgun at home, having struggled to settle a girl who had been placed with her 12th foster parent and ninth school and, finally, having tried to comfort two assaulted teachers, one of whom had been knocked unconscious by a pupil in the playground.

 “It would be simplistic and incorrect to say that well-adjusted children invariably emerge from two-parent families and that maladjusted children are the inevitable product of broken families – we all know there are some very skilled and caring single parents out there. But it is clear to all teachers that the most settled children come from conventional two-parent families.

 “I’m reminded of three different schools I worked for. In the first, children ate in a spotless dining room and were praised for using the correct cutlery by teachers, who were happy to eat their own lunches with them, chatting for 10 minutes before succumbing to the pull of adult conversation in the staff room. In the same school, children routinely opened doors for adults and stood for them upon their entering a room.

 “In a second school, staff had to be coerced to eat with children, who used any implement available, including their hands, to eat. Proper conversation was impossible because of the noise, and teachers would make a bad-tempered exit as fast as they could.

 “In a third school, no teacher would be seen dead in the dining hall, where lunchtime supervisors were sworn at by pupils and the floor looked as if the contents of a pig trough had been up-ended there.

 “What was clear in each of these schools was that the effect of staff intervention on table manners was minimal. The state of dining decorum was quite clearly dependent on what had been picked up at home.”

 Which in turn brings us to fire. It was interesting to read Sir Peter Sutherland some weeks ago commenting on the genesis of the Celtic Tiger, where this wonderful beast had come from and how much longer it was likely to survive. Some say it is the creature of the European Union, some credit our level of corporation tax, some credit the wonderful family of Anglophone nations – there we go again – to which we belong and over which our generous Diaspora is spread. Some credit our superior education system. It was this lat that Sir Peter was probably most sceptical about. At best he thought our education system was mediocre. No, what he seemed to place real emphasis on was the strength and quality of the Irish family and the influence it exercised throughout our society – both in terms of the upbringing of children, the motivational force it exercised and the communities it created throughout our society. Of course it is, was and – if we are careful with it – always will be. Its power is even seen in the strength and cohesion of that very Diaspora with which we identify so closely. But will it last? Are we not really playing with fire as we mistake sentimentality for compassion, as we muddle love and lust, as we meddle with marriage and the family as our legislators – some of them anyway – are threatening to do?  

Michael Kirke, worked as a journalist with The Irish Press. He is now a freelance writer and the director of Ely University Centre, 10 Hume Street, Dublin 2. His views can be responded to at Other writing can be found on his blog, . 

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