Category Archives: metaphors

Metaphors… again, and in the time of the pandemic

I’ve written several posts on metaphor… here, here, and here.

In these truly bizarre times when the world has been closed down by the Covid 19 pandemic, we see the power of metaphor. For many, but especially in the USA, UK and even France, the pandemic is a war. This is, of course, metaphoric and makes sense within a frame often used by media and politicians. Within the frame of war, we naturally understand things like life and death; enemies (seen and not seen); battles; front lines; sacrifice; home front.

The virus is often referred to as an “enemy who can strike” ~ anthropomorphizing the virus with the “who” reinforces the enemy as person(s), as a target within the war metaphor. This personification also gives a moral dimension to the virus, it has intention to cause harm, which has been extended to its place of origin (the China Virus) and the repeated efforts to connect the virus to an intentional act of national aggression. This extension also constructs an us and them relationship.

Another component of the metaphor is the characterization of health care workers as being on the front line, doing their duty battling the virus. They are described as heroes in their fight, but they work without the supplies and supports troops in battle enjoy. Some health care workers reinforce this metaphor, others reject it.

 

 

But a pandemic is not a war, a virus has no morality or intention, the virus is not intimidated by force or bombastic rhetoric, and health care workers are not soldiers. The strategies that will contain the virus are inconsistent with war… isolation, for example. Nonetheless, the frame of war with its metaphoric content is meant to rally people in a particular way, to signal who has responsibility and who does not. When rural parts of the USA resist stay at home orders because there are few cases of Covid 19 in their area they see the front line very far from them, and a battle that is being fought elsewhere thus making them safe from the enemy. The public does not embrace measures to safe guard public health, because a small group of others will defeat or at least contain the viral enemy.

The war metaphor also leads to containment of information… information is controlled, limited, and on a need to know basis. The war frame directs attention to divisions among people, to fear, to security and enforcement, and to the use of propaganda and censorship. This stands in stark contrast to countries where the war metaphor is not prevalent, and where information is shared routinely and transparently (for example… Germany, Canada, New Zealand) and through metaphors of science, medicine, and the common good.

Not only is the analogy of war misplaced on factual grounds; it also misses the possibility to cultivate an imagination that builds on narratives of peace, solidarity and social justice – and to foster a more acute understanding of how we are all fundamentally dependent on one another as inhabitants of a shared planet. (Source)

It’s all metaphors, all the time… but different metaphors construct different lived experiences with potentially dramatically different real outcomes.

Metaphors: how they help us to understand social life (and maybe make positive change)

I’ve written a few posts about metaphors ¬†including their centrality to how knowledge about and action in the social world is constructed [The Power of Metaphors] and how to use a metaphoric lens during data analysis [Making Sense of Metaphors].

People use metaphors often as a short-hand, a way to capture complex ideas and relationships; to direct attention in a particular way; and often to present a moral view. In British Columbia where I live the province is in the midst of a fairly pitched battle between the teachers union and the government (ok so I’ve already tipped my hand in terms of the metaphor I use in talking about these labor relations). A rising chorus of voices have begun to use the metaphor of labor relations as marriage, not surprisingly since both the teachers union and the government claim to have the best interests of children at heart.

The labor relations as marriage works on a number of levels and not on many others. But, it is dominant in the media, the rhetoric of the union and the government, school administrators, students, and analysts. So, it needs to be taken seriously to understand the impasse in negotiations (and indeed the now decade old acrimonious relationship between the two) and using this understanding to both think and then act differently.

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Here’s a link to the article: ¬†Does It Help to Say the BC Teachers and the Government are in a Bad Marriage?

 

 

 

the power of metaphors

We are, of course, aware of the power of metaphors, but we often simplistically believe that we choose the metaphors we use rather than them being embedded within metaphors that are so deep (and often simple) that we misunderstand their power and their hegemony. Lakoff and Johnson have provided an excellent analysis of this idea in Metaphors We Live By and Lakoff has contributed significantly to our understanding of the role of metaphors in public policy and discourse, often employed by the media and politicians.

In an editorial on the fiscal cliff, Lakoff illustrates the ways the fiscal cliff metaphor is constructed through other more deeply held metaphors. Here is an excerpt:

Let’s take a look at the metaphorical complexity of “fiscal cliff” and how the metaphors that comprise it fit together. The simplest, is the metaphor named MoreIsUp, which is a neural circuit linking two distinct brain regions, one for verticality and one for quantity. It is a high-level general metaphor widespread throughout the world, and occurs in a vast number of sentences like “turn the radio up,” “the temperature fell,” and so on.

The economy is seen as moving forward and either moving up, moving down or staying level, where verticality metaphorically indicates the value of economic indicators like the GDP or a stock market average. These are indicators of economic activity such as overall spending on goods and services or the sale of stocks. Why is economic activity conceptualized as motion? Because a common conceptual metaphor is being used: ActivityIsMotion, as in sentences like “The project is moving along smoothly,” “The remodeling is getting bogged down,” and so on. The common metaphor TheFutureIsAhead accounts for why the motion is “forward.”

In a diagram of changes over time in a stock market or the GDP, the metaphor used is ThePastIsLeft and TheFutureIsRight, which is why the diagram goes from left to right when the economy is conceptualized as moving “forward.”

When Ben Bernanke spoke of the “fiscal cliff,” he undoubtedly had in mind a graph of the economy moving along, left to right, on a slight incline and then suddenly dropping way down, which looks like a line drawing of a cliff from the side view. Such a graph has values built in via the metaphor GoodIsUp. Going down over the cliff is thus bad.

The administration has the goal of increasing GDP. Here common metaphors apply: SuccessIsUp and FailingIsFalling. Hence going over the fiscal cliff would be a serious failure for the administration and harm for the populace.

These metaphors fit together tightly in the usual graph of changes in economic activity over time, together with the metaphorical interpretation of the graph. From the neural perspective, these metaphors form a tightly integrated neural cascade — so tightly integrated and so natural that we barely notice them, if we notice them at all.

What is equally important about Lakoff’s illustration is that one metaphor, especially one built on more deeply cognitively embedded metaphors, cannot be easily replaced (if at all) by an alternate metaphor.