Monday, May 23, 2011

The Silver Bullet

These days, it seems, everyone is looking for the answer. Never mind the question. It is the answer we want. And lately, that answer seems to be a 'silver bullet.'

Yes, whether it is the economy or the war in Afghanistan or the Gulf oil spill, everyone is looking for a silver bullet.

The economy? The Washington Post said, "Pass the silver bullet."

Iraq? "Iraq Elections: No Silver Bullet" says The Century Foundation.

Iran? "US admits no silver bullet in US-led drive against Iran" says the AFP.

Afghanistan? "No silver bullet for Afghanistan" says the Guardian.

Gulf oil spill? "...dispersants are not a silver bullet." says BP.

Besides the obvious disagreement in syntax, I have a more basic question: Does anyone have any idea what they are talking about?

What exactly is a silver bullet? Why do journalists, speech and copy writers invoke it every time they don't have a simple, immediate solution to a very complicated, long-standing problem?

Well, the answer to the first of my rhetorical questions is no: most writers have no idea what they are talking about when they say that "there is no silver bullet."

While it is facile to conflate real-world bad things like a failing economy or a useless war with fictional bad things like vampires and werewolves, its simply a lazy way of summing up something so complicated and obviously bad that it can only be compared to a evil and bloodthirsty creature that comes in the night to kill people and steal their souls.

More frustrating than the over-use of this cliche is its mis-use. I have heard people say, "there is no silver bullet that will rebuild the economy." Well, of course there isn't. Bullets, even silver ones, are not the sort of thing that one uses to build anything, economies, houses or relationships.

Or,"there is no silver bullet that will cure cancer." Again, this is a not just another real misunderstanding of the metaphor but its another case in which it doesn't even come close to describing the intent. If bullets cured cancer, we'd all pack heat.

It sounds like a intelligent--dare I say literate--way of saying something akin to "there is no single solution to this very complicated problem/war/situation," but in fact, they are simply being the opposite of intelligent by parroting a false metaphor. Even the image of a silver bullet does nothing to combat economic problems, or ideological problems that are at the root of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it does offer up an easy and easily misconstrued image of a solution.

As if a single shot could solve what a million words, images and rounds of real lead ammunition have so far failed to do: end it all.

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