Global Change Seminar
"It's Your Move!"
Segment #5: The Impact of Metaphor
Part I: Metaphorical Thinking
How do we know how (and what) we think?
One way is to do as our mother told us: "Sit down, be still, and pay attention." In stillness we can find the capacity to witness our thoughts. Eventually we can learn to own our thoughts, rather than have them owning us.
Another way to learn how we think is to play close attention to what we say. The entire domain of linguistic study is devoted to the study of what we say and how we say it. George Lakoff is a linguist who has spent much of his academic career studying the use of metaphor, and how its use helps explain how we think. We are indebted to his work. [As an aside, note that when Lakoff entered the political arena in 2002 by framing the debate between liberals and conservatives in linguistic terms, he became the target of a much heat and sarcasm from conservative politicians. We suggest you disregard this--Lakoff's work yields important insights.]
Lakoff postulates that we think, talk, and understand our everyday lives and make sense of them primarily through a thought process which entails the regular use of conceptual metaphor. Conceptual metaphor involves understanding one domain of experience in terms of another. This is so natural to our way of thinking and speaking that, more often than not, we don’t even realize that we are doing it.
As an example, we commonly conceptualize morality in terms of financial transactions and accounting:
- If you do me a favor I’ll be indebted to you.
- Thanks a lot, I owe you one.
- I’ll repay the favor one of these days.
- You’ll be sorry you did that when payback time comes around!
As another example, we conceptualize argument in terms of war:
- Your claims are indefensible.
- He attacked every weak point in my argument.
- My criticisms were right on target.
- He shot down all my defenses.
- I demolished his whole stance.
And we regularly conceptualize time as money:
- You’re wasting my time.
- I spent the time reading novels.
- This will save you time.
- The traffic jam cost me an hour.
- He doesn’t use his time profitably.
- He’s living on borrowed time.
Countless conceptual metaphors are so embedded in our way of talking and thinking that we rarely even think of them as metaphor. Look, for instance, at some of the ways we characterize or describe the concept of an idea:
- Ideas are food: What he said left a bad taste in my mouth.
- Ideas are people: The theory of relativity gave birth to a whole new field of physics.
- Ideas are plants: That idea died on the vine.
- Ideas are products: We generated several new ideas and then he produced yet another one.
- Ideas are commodities: How you package your idea determines how well you can sell it.
- Ideas are resources: Those are good thoughts, don’t waste them. He ran out of ideas.
- Ideas are money: Let me get my two cents worth in.
- Ideas are cutting instruments: That cuts right to the heart of the issue. He has razor sharp wit.
- Ideas are fashions: That idea went out of style years ago.
We could extend such lists indefinitely because the essence of metaphor, understanding and experiencing one concept in terms of another, is absolutely fundamental to how we think. And, while we use them, hear them, and understand them entirely out of our own awareness, they have a profound impact on our world view, on how we ‘make sense’ of our everyday world, on how we see things. (There goes another one! We see trees or dogs or cars perhaps, but we don’t literally see our world view, we conceptualize and experience it but it isn’t actually a view at all. Yet we easily say “That’s one way of looking at things” and are instantly understood.)
How do these conceptual metaphors have such a powerful impact on our understanding of our world, on how we see things? They do so primarily because every concept carries and is supported by a whole frame of reference. When we conceptualize morality (what’s good and what’s bad) in the framework of financial transactions and accounting we bring our whole array of values and beliefs about money to bear on the concept of morality. It is these frames of reference (or frames) which influence how we conceptualize, see or make sense of things. If, for example, we hear the term tax relief, the word "relief" evokes the frame that some affliction or hardship needs to be removed, cured, remedied or rectified. Thus tax is framed as a bad thing that needs to be alleviated. If instead, we use the term tax investment, the word investment evokes the frame that something worthwhile is being purchased, acquired, attained or realized. The two very different frames of the words "relief" and "investment" evoke radically different and opposing views about taxation. The frames portray taxes as either a worthwhile investment (good) or an affliction to be remedied (bad). If they’re bad you’re being victimized by them and need a rescuer to save you by reducing taxes. If they’re good, you need someone who sees that your contribution is being spent wisely by financing such things as the international highway system, social security, health care, national security, education, scientific research, or the Internet.
Because our ubiquitous use of conceptual metaphor is so powerful in how it influences and frames our world view, it is worth noting that:
- Every word we use evokes a frame (or frame of reference).
- Words defined within a frame evoke the entire frame. (i.e. In the sentence “Sam used his trunk to pick up a peanut.” the word trunk evokes the frame elephant.)
- Negating a frame evokes the frame. (e.g. The statement "Don’t think about the color blue" requires you to think about the color blue in order to comprehend the sentence you just heard.)
- Evoking a frame reinforces the frame. (Therefore, arguing against it only strengthens it. It is more effective, for example, to
argue in favor of tax investment than it is to argue against tax relief.)
Thus whenever we address any issue that is important to us, it behooves us to be clear about the underlying values that support our stance on that issue and then frame the issue using metaphors that endorse, fortify or promote those values. It is far more powerful and persuasive to speak from a frame that supports our stance on an issue than it is to argue against a frame that discounts our stance.
Lakoff hypothesizes that in our culture there are primarily two basic family child rearing models from which we acquire our essential values about life, about how to be a good responsible person, and about how to treat others. He names these the "Strict Father" model and the "Nurturant Parent" model. Each of these models contains important categories of moral action such as self-discipline, responsibility, self-reliance, empathy,compassion and fairness, etc., which are promoted and hopefully instilled in the children by their parents.
Each model has a hierarchy of moral values which prioritizes the order in which these values are felt to be most important.
- The rank order of The Strict Father model tends to be (1) discipline, (2) authority, (3) order, (4) boundaries, (5) homogeneity, (6) self-reliance, and (7) self-interest. Consequently it tends to promote fear and punishment as a means of upholding authority. (“Just wait until your father gets home!”)
- The rank order of The Nurturant Parent model tends to be (1) empathy, (2) nurturance, (3) social ties, (4) fairness, (5) self-reliance, and (6) happiness. Consequently it is more likely to use guilt and example as a means of upholding authority (“You have to share your toys with your brother - how would you feel if he had all the toys?”)
Lakoff asserts that the primary difference in these two models lies in the order in which they prioritize the importance of these various moral values, what he terms a hierarchy of values. And that the differing order of priority adhered to by these models establishes or forecasts the future moral, and subsequently political values of the children.
- The Strict Father model promotes self-discipline, responsibility, and self-reliance by upholding the morality of reward and punishment and thereby promotes punishment as a means of upholding authority. This leads to political stances usually termed conservative such as self-reliance rather than social programs in response to economic or medical need, and retribution rather than rehabilitation in response to criminal behavior, etc.
- The Nurturant Parent model promotes empathetic behavior, fairness and helping those who cannot help themselves which leads to political stances usually dubbed liberal such as social security for those in need, health care for all, unemployment insurance, rehabilitation rather than retribution in response to criminal behavior, etc.
So how can we use this insight to expand our impact on our world? Lakoff suggests that we take the time to think out and carefully reframe those issues that are important to us.
- Identify the relevant underlying core values for the issue you wish to address.
- Write down how your position follows from these values.
- Articulate the facts and their consequences within these moral frames.
- Define "us" (your stance on the issue) and "them" (the opposing stance) within these moral frames.
As an example one might take the current U.S. political issue of social security reform.
Perspective A: The core values underlying social security are empathy, concern, care, help, health, safety, nutrition, and basic human dignity. These values dictate that as a nation we have a social responsibility to see that when people reach retirement age they have or are given the means to meet their basic needs. In view of the rapidly escalating percent of our population that is falling below the poverty line it is evident that we will have increasing numbers of people who, as they reach the age when they are no longer gainfully employable, will be unable to support themselves. What's to be done when these people have been brought to their knees by the vicissitudes of our changing economy? Can and should a safety net be provided for the aged? Or is this a luxury that we can no longer afford? The system which was set up in 1935 worked quite well and, as Senator Patrick Moynihan pointed out some thirty years ago, would still be working well if we had simply deposited the collected monies in a special account instead of dumping it into the general fund. From this perspective the 'frame' from which to discuss social security is 'collective social responsibility', 'safety net', and 'unequal effects of the vicissitudes of a changing economy'.
Perspective B: The old values underlying the development of social security are outmoded. We have reached the stage and economy where people can, and should be, responsible for themselves. Everyone ought to be accountable for their own actions. If people fail to take steps to provide for security in their old age, then it is not productive for the government to bail them out. Such government programs only promote dependency and diminish self-reliance and are inherently inequitable since some people benefit more than others. It is more appropriate that community and religious groups respond to specific needs than that the government enact programs for them. From this perspective the 'frame' from which to discuss social security is 'self reliance', 'independence' and 'individual responsibility'.
- What strikes you most about what you just read?
- What kind of metaphors do you use to explain ideas to other people?
- Do you notice when news is interpreted through metaphors?
Next: Therapeutic Metaphor