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The political use and abuse of metaphor

Author James Geary talks to spiked about the explosion of metaphors around the economic crisis and the Arab uprisings and what they reveal about the attitudes of commentators and politicians.

Patrick Hayes

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‘Will Egypt’s revolution spark a Domino Effect?’; ‘Could a political-unrest contagion potentially spread elsewhere?’; ‘Will a flash flood of change sweep across the Arab world?’; ‘Are we being swept up in the winds of change blowing all over the Middle East?’… Will the stream of metaphors never run dry?

Like the ‘perfect storm’ whipped up by the financial crisis of 2008, the current uprisings in the Arab world have certainly prompted politicians and the media alike to flex their metaphors. Almost anywhere one looks for analysis of events, a metaphor stares back.

None of this metaphorical excess has escaped the attention of James Geary. And nor would you expect it to. Geary is the author of I is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World. He is completely attuned to our use of metaphor. And after a minute or two listening to him talk about how we often fail to appreciate the beauty of the imagery in some metaphors (‘wriggling like a herring on a hatpin’ is one of his favourites), you find yourself becoming acutely aware of metaphors, too. Indeed, when he spoke at a recent event in London, fellow panelists and audience members became self-conscious every time they used a metaphor and felt the need to draw attention to it – ‘of course that’s another metaphor’ – to the point where it became rather irritating.

When writing about the nature of metaphor as ‘fossilised poetry’, ruminating about the significance of Shakespeare’s metaphor of Juliet as ‘the sun’ or commenting on how our use of metaphors gives us an insight into what it means to be human, there is a timeless quality to Geary’s I is an Other. It’s a delightful and extremely readable essay, and many parts of it could have been written at any point over the past few decades.

But Geary believes I is an Other also has a pressing contemporary relevance. As he points out in his book, ‘metaphor is at work in all fields of human endeavour, from economics and advertising, to politics and business, to science and psychology’.

For Geary, one of the most fascinating uses of metaphor in contemporary language is in the domain of economics. As he puts it, ‘Economics is one of the places where the secret life of metaphor breaks the surface, and where its ruptures and ructions can have powerful aftershocks.’

That the recent financial crisis led to an eruption of metaphors among commentators reveals a lot about their state of mind, Geary tells spiked: ‘Every newspaper, every newscaster was saying “we’re on the brink”, “we’re on the precipice”, “we’re looking into the abyss and it could all tumble down”. So when you get this crisis situation, which is a crisis, not a metaphorical crisis but a real one, and these hyperbolic metaphors come on top, they keep nudging people in this direction of “oh my God, crisis, horror”.’ According to Geary, this excess of figurative language has a literal impact: ‘We talk ourselves into a recession, or at least deeper into a crisis… It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. The metaphors build on one another and reinforce one another in a sort of Darwinian competition in Metaphor-land.’

There is a lot of truth to Geary’s observations. And the specific imagery used by commentators to talk about a particular phenomenon is often very revealing. So to describe the economic crisis as a ‘storm’ is to convey the sense that it is out of control, a naturalised process that we have to try to weather, rather than something that we can influence. Again, with the Middle East uprisings, the talk of the protests being either ‘contagious’ or part of some sort of ‘domino effect’ has the effect of diminishing the agency of those involved. The idea underlying such metaphors is that it is not that Libyans, for instance, have decided to take things into their own hands and risk everything to overthrow Colonel Gaddafi, it’s because they caught the bug from Egypt and Tunisia. Metaphors, when used in this way, can reveal a deeply fatalistic mindset, as if a mass uprising is caused by some extraneous force beyond people’s control.

When asked how this trend could be changed, Geary’s response was to add another level of metaphor: ‘To really comprehend the economic crisis or the Middle East uprisings, which for us and our generation are unprecedented, you need a new metaphor.’ It’s easy to see this as a light-hearted remark, but Geary was being (at least partially) serious. As he writes in I is an Other, ‘new research in the social and cognitive sciences makes it increasingly plain that metaphorical thinking influences our attitudes, beliefs and actions in surprising, hidden, and often oddball ways’.

Geary speaks of a nascent branch of the therapy industry in which companies employ psychotherapists to analyse the way in which employees use metaphors to describe their experiences in the workplace. One manager, for example, was found to use wartime metaphors to describe how embattled he felt at work. So the psychotherapist took him through a series of probing ‘clean language’ questions to shift his perspective from ‘WORK IS WAR’ to ‘WORK IS PLAYING IN AN ORCHESTRA’.

This could be seen as rather patronising. After all, it is an approach that assumes people cannot just be engaged with rationally. It assumes instead that people can be engaged with better at the level of the metaphors they use, as if these figures of speech, and not their own reason, reveal the true source of their actions and beliefs. Change the metaphors, change the person, goes the thinking.

Politicians have also recently started to show an interest in metaphor as a means of engaging with people. Of course political speech writers have long been aware of the power of metaphors, but what seems to be different now is the way in which metaphor-laden speeches are being constructed to appeal to the emotions of the audience. For example, at this year’s Fabian New Year conference, a hang-out for London’s left-leaning types, Labour MP Chuka Umunna gained a positive reception when he argued that that left-wing political parties really need to start using ‘emotional’ language – just like right-wing groups do, he suggested.

Geary admits that attempts to appeal to us in this way, to ‘nudge’ us through metaphors, do have a ‘dark side’. He counters that he has great faith in people’s intelligence. His work, as he sees it, aims to draw attention to the ways in which metaphors are used. Because if you ‘shine a light on these kind of things then you create a moment of consciousness and awareness so that the individual can determine his or her response’.

Yet for all the illuminating insights an analysis of metaphors can provide, there is a danger of staying too long in ‘Metaphor-land’. Metaphors are undoubtedly an essential part of how we communicate, and they play an important role in the communication of ideas. But they are no substitute for the generation of the ideas themselves. To comprehend the situation in the Middle East requires a robust analysis of contemporary events. And once that’s been achieved then metaphors will flow freely and spontaneously. Hunting for a fresh new metaphor in lieu of a reasoned idea is to get things the wrong way round.

In his seminal essay, Politics and the English Language, George Orwell argued that ‘the sole aim of metaphor is to call up a visual image’. Now it seems the burden on metaphors is much greater: they are being used to probe our unconscious mind, to nudge us into behaving in certain ways. This new fashion for manipulation through metaphor needs to be nipped in the bud before it gets out of hand.

Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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