Ever thought of a metaphor as deadly? You might after reading this article by George Lakoff in AlterNet. Metaphors and how they shape our thoughts and the world around us have long been the subject of Lakoff’s work (although he’s also written about semi-related topics such as in his book “Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind” which is not only very relevant to the work I do, but also one of my favorite book titles ever, but I digress). In this article, though, his investigation of metaphor may be critical to building a successful opposition response to war advocates. By framing the 9/11 attacks, and our response to them, as a war, Bush & Co have been able to tap into some kind of primal patriotism — that of the “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” variety.

Conservatives have grown very good at this sort of linguistic manipulation. Against abortion? That makes you “pro-life.” Sign me up! I want to be pro-life. Who wouldn’t? Against marriage equality for same-sex couples? That’s because you support “family values.” Neat! I do, too!

But progressives have been slower to pick up on this metaphorical framing. And yet, as Lakoff states, language “can determine how we think and act.” Shouldn’t we be paying attention to how we describe ourselves and our causes? Shouldn’t we be looking for opportunities to re-frame debates and issues the way we want them seen? I think it’s harder for many on the Left, because the “with us/against us” dichotomy isn’t the way most of us parse the world, and that’s an advantage to many on the Right. In fact, it’s a struggle to even write this post without inserting a bunch of parenthetical caveats (“not all conservatives think this way!” etc ad nauseum) but maybe this isn’t the time for such gentle consideration of those who oppose us. Maybe this is the time for us to wise up, assess the message coming from the folks who’ve kept themselves in charge in spite of the wishes of the majority, and start responding to their tactics — not necessarily with the same tactics, but measure for measure in tactics we can stand behind.

And we can start, as Lakoff suggests, by exposing the war metaphor as just that: a metaphor. See how we’ve been manipulated, America? Take it back. Re-frame it. To what end? As Lakoff says, “It would allow us to name right-wing ideology, to spell it out, look at its effects, and to see what awful things it has done, is doing, and threatens to keep on doing. The blame for what has gone wrong in Iraq, in New Orleans, in our economy, and throughout the country at large should be placed squarely where it belongs — on right-wing ideology that calls itself ‘conservative’ but mocks real American values.”

As long as the leadership continues to manipulate, let’s call them on it. And bit by bit, maybe we can start to take back the direction of the country, steering it towards a more upright, diplomatic place where those of us who’ve become ashamed of our government can find some cause for pride.

Metaphors that can kill

4 thoughts on “Metaphors that can kill

  • September 12, 2006 at 10:07 am

    Word. Word, word, word. (And yes, of course, pun intended. But still – WORD.)

    Blessedly – if unsurprisingly – well said.

  • September 12, 2006 at 10:31 am

    sounds like my favorite new yorker columnist.

    That’s why we have to stop calling it the “War in Iraq” and instead, the “Occupation of Iraq.”

    Before 2001, terrorists were referred to as “Freedom Fighters.”

  • September 12, 2006 at 7:10 pm

    great piece, Kate. We’ve been way too passive on this ‘war’ issue. Words kill…


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