Propaganda School Part 6: Metaphor

The subject of this post is one that is close to my heart. I did my degree in linguistics where I ended up writing an honours thesis in the field of cognitive linguistics and specifically on the subject of metaphor as a cognitive process. Metaphor is a usage in language where you attempt to elucidate the properties of one thing by likening it to another. “All the world’s a stage…” is one of the famous examples. In cognitive linguistics, it is believed that metaphor is not just a fancy way for a writer to show off their skills but a fundamental process of human cognition. That is, in understanding the world, we make use of more concrete domains such as space to help us make sense of more abstract domains such as time. There is ample empirical evidence for this claim built right into the deep structures of grammar. For any interested readers wanting to know more, the classic text in the field is George Lakoff’s Metaphors We Live By.

Metaphors work to elucidate the properties of one thing by carrying over properties from another. Because metaphors are not logical, they can’t be proven false by argument. They can’t be fact checked. There are rules to metaphor construction that can be shown by cognitive science. But, for everyday purposes, a metaphor is either valid or invalid. Well-chosen or clumsy. Let’s look at some examples.

British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is a walking metaphor generator (yes, that was a metaphor). One of his recent efforts was in relation to a corona vaccine where he said that he “welcomed the toot of the scientific cavalry from over the hill.”

In this case he is elucidating the efforts of vaccine scientists by reference to an army in battle. The implication is that the corona event is like a war and the vaccine scientists are our allies coming to our aid.

Is this valid? Is this a well-chosen metaphor? It’s true that the discipline and rigor shown in an army is similar to the discipline and rigor shown in a modern laboratory (presumably, the modern lab also shows the same obedience to authority and lack of creativity and critical thinking as well). Is the corona event like a war? It certainly is similar to war in Britain at the moment, although whether it needs to be is another question. Corona is not a war in the literal sense. But it is like a war and that is the framing that Johnson wants to foreground. If people accept the metaphor, they accept that understanding and will welcome the vaccine scientists as allies. Ironically, vaccine science has become very nationalistic in that we will only accept the vaccine of ‘our’ scientists. Nobody in Britain is going to be taking the Russian or the Chinese vaccine, for example.

So, yes, Johnson’s metaphor is well constructed. It validly compares its source domain to its target domain and conveys the implication that Johnson wants the public to understand: we are in a kind of war but the scientists are coming to save us. You can disagree with that framing of the reality, but not with the validity of the metaphor.

Let’s look at a more clumsy metaphor on the same subject. The British health minister, Matt Hancock, said in an address to parliament that the NHS would be “injecting hope” into the population of Britain when the vaccine arrived.

The main problem with his metaphor is the choice of the source domain. Hancock foregrounds the process of being injected with something. But being injected with something is never good. Nobody likes getting a needle and many people downright hate it. If Hancock was trying to put a positive spin on the matter, he should not have chosen a source domain that is inherently disagreeable.

Then we have the fact that the needle is filled with hope. What has hope got to do with it? A vaccine is supposed to be based on science. The whole point of science is that it works. And the whole point of the vaccine is that it is supposed to bring the corona business to an end. Nobody wants to take the vaccine and hope that it works. They want it to work. By using the word hope, Hancock is invoking an almost religious sentiment. To my mind, this also raised another connotation of ‘injecting’ which is drug use and addiction. I instantly thought of hopium, which rhymes with another thing which you can inject into your arm. Are vaccines now the hopium of the masses?

So, Hancock’s metaphor is clumsy. He was trying to put a positive spin on events but didn’t achieve his goal. Perhaps that’s why he’s health minister and Johnson is Prime Minister.

Metaphors can be novel, such as “injecting hope” or established like “they shoved it down his throat.” Here’s a nice example of a mixture of novel and established metaphors in this article from RT which is also about vaccines.  I have highlighted the metaphors.

“…working with the IATA as well as the International Civil Aviation Organization to shove the program down the world’s throat.

Not that it’ll need much shoving. The powers-that-be seem confident that, after ‘Lockdown 2.0’, most people will be so eaten up with cabin fever they’ll jump through any hoop imaginable just to climb onboard a plane and get out of wherever they are. ‘Flights to nowhere’ taking off and landing at the same airports in Australia and Hong Kong earlier this year have already proved frequent flyers are jonesing to get back in the air.”

Whew! That’s a lot of metaphors. RT op-eds are the best place to overdose on metaphors outside of a Boris Johnson press conference and this article is no different. This author has managed to cram more than one metaphor per sentence into this section of text. The result is an indistinct mess. Because metaphors don’t rely on either logic or fact, their overuse leads to wishy-washy argumentation.

Sometimes a poorly constructed metaphor can be just plain weird. Recall that metaphor works by invoking a concrete, easily understandable domain (like troops marching over the hill) to elucidate a less concrete domain (like vaccine science). A common way to misconstruct a metaphor is to start with a source domain that is too abstract. Here is a classic example in that category courtesy of yet another RT op-ed this time from a journalist from my home town, Caitlin Johnstone. Here is the metaphor in question:

“…social media is notorious for the way it creates tightly insulated echo chambers which masturbate our confirmation bias…”

I must admit, this hurt my brain the first time I read it. Let’s unpack it.

An “echo chamber” is a well-established metaphor in common usage. The source domain is a room which echoes your own voice back to you. Such rooms are used in audio production as a way to create a reverberation effect. That concrete, physical meaning was extended to elucidate the more abstract social phenomenon where people congregate with other people who share the same worldview and therefore end up echoing each other’s opinion back to themselves. The metaphor works nicely and has found a permanent place in the lexicon especially with the advent of social media.

However, Johnstone uses that metaphor as a subject in a larger metaphor. The echo chamber as metaphor is now masturbating confirmation bias. There are several problems with this. Firstly, masturbation is something you do to yourself. The verb masturbate is thus an intransitive verb that does not take a direct object. But in the metaphor, Johnstone is using it as a transitive verb. Because of this, the verb itself is functioning metaphorically. Specifically, it’s a synechdoche: the use of part for a whole. Johnstone wants to choose the connotation of masturbation as useless self-pleasuring to say something like echo chambers cause the useless self-pleasuring of our confirmation bias. So, we have a metaphor as subject, a verb being used metaphorically and a grammatical direct object which is an abstract concept (psychological bias).

To make matters worse, confirmation bias is what motives echo chambers in the first place. It is because we want to hear our existing opinions confirmed that we form ourselves into social groups that echo those opinions to us. Johnstone has constructed a metaphor where the metaphorical echo chamber is acting upon the psychological bias which motivates it.

It would be an interesting exercise in cognitive linguistics to unpack all the rules of metaphor creation that Johnstone has broken in the construction of her masturbation metaphor. The result, however, is quite clear. Her statement is nonsense, albeit very complicated nonsense.

It’s not the clumsy metaphors we need to worry about. It’s the well-constructed ones which form effective propaganda. A metaphor which slips under the radar can do powerful work in skewing our perception of what is going on. To be immune, we must first learn to spot metaphors every time they are being used and then to get into the habit of unpacking them. This takes time and energy but it becomes a lot easier as you go. If you stick at it, you’ll start seeing patterns in metaphor use which reveal much about our culture and you’ll realise how powerful metaphors are as a tool of propaganda.

Reader Exercise

Have a read of this article in the RT and highlight every metaphor you can find. I count 18.

This series of posts will be much more fun if readers can contribute. Feel free to comment with any examples of metaphors you find.

All posts in this series:

2 thoughts on “Propaganda School Part 6: Metaphor”

  1. Hello Simon,
    Metaphors are the bread and butter of daily prose.
    The epic George Lakoff clears the skies, by shattering the clouds of confusion, with books that read like thunderbolts!
    I very much like his analysis of American political discourse based on “family values”, where the metaphors/frames steer outcome.

    Since you are a legitimate black-belt linguist – could you please clarify how metaphors and frames differ? Or is it kind of the same? Or two sides of the same coin? Or two metafors in the same frame?

    Kind regards,

  2. Hi Goran,

    Nice use of metaphor. You could get a job at the RT or maybe as Boris Johnson’s speechwriter.

    The question of metaphor and frames really depends what you mean by a frame.

    In cognitive linguistics, the analysis of metaphor usually involves coming up with a schema (which I would call a ‘frame’) and using that to analyse the language in question. For example – time. In English, we assume a ‘time line’ which is a horizontal line extending indefinitely forward into the future and backwards into the past. That’s the frame. It’s actually a spatial frame that is used to understand time. If I say “Let’s meet at midday”, the use of ‘at’ is a metaphor where we imagine a point on that line. If I say “Let’s meet over lunch” we imagine an elongated period over the timeline. In this case, the metaphors are specific configurations of the frame. By contrast, in Chinese, apparently they use a vertical line as the spatial frame to represent time.

    Hope that makes sense. It would be easier to explain with diagrams.

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