The Power of Metaphors and Euphemisms

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By Dov Michaeli

Metaphor: a figure of speech in which an implied comparison is made between two unlike things that actually have something in common.

Euphemism:  the substitution of an inoffensive term (such as “passed away”) for one considered offensively explicit (“died”).

In his 1946 article “Politics and the English Language” George Orwell wrote: “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.” Sad to say, George, it is the same in our times. In today’s China the government calls its repressive measures “stability maintenance” (weinwen), to promote “social harmony.” You get the warm and fuzzy image of a benign mother keeping the family happy and in harmonious bliss.

Or take Israel’s prime minister, Netanyahu. This country of holocaust survivors, refugees from Arab hatred and Soviet antisemitism, is preparing to deport children of illegal immigrants, many of them refugees from murderous regimes like Sudan.The  idea of deporting children has become the subject of emotional debate and protest demonstrations. But like any seasoned politician, the prime minister is trying to frighten the people that these children are “a threat” that could “flood the foundation of the Zionist stat.e” It matters not that the foundation of  the “Zionist state” is presumably not so fragile as to be threatened by400 children who speak Hebrew, many of whom crossed the Egyptian desert on foot to reach Israel and who have no other home. The use of the flood metaphor (the watery equivalent of a human horde) and the image of crumbling houses (under attack by the barbarous hordes) is designed to arouse irrational fears. Irony of ironies: a documentary about a Tel Aviv school where children from 48 countries found a safe haven from daily hardships and, in many cases, horrible trauma, just received the Oscar prize. Over one hundred of these students are slated for deportation. I used to think Arizona was unique…

The use of such threatening metaphors is standard fare for politicians of all political hues. The Nazis repeatedly used the “rat” metaphor in their diatribes against the Jews. The feelings of revulsion about this vermin, and the implicit suggestion of a threat of spreading diseases like the plague, succeeded in transforming a whole nation into a murderous mob. Not to be outdone, the despotic regime in Iran refers to the opposition as “cockroaches”, trying to arouse the same feeling of revulsion and the justification for smashing them under foot.

The belief that language is a tool that is liable to be manipulated is as old as the third century Talmud, which warns that “the tongue (language) holds the power of life and death”. Trouble is, despite numerous historical anecdotes, this “common knowledge” has not been subjected to dispassionate scientific examination.

The Scientific Inquiry

In the Jan 18 issue of PLOS ONE Paul Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky of the department of Psychology, Stanford University, authored a paper titledMetaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning. They state that “Public discourse about crime is saturated with metaphor. Increases in the prevalence of crime are described as crime waves, surges or sprees. A spreading crime problem is a crime epidemic, plaguing a city or infecting a community. Crimes themselves are attacks in which criminals prey on unsuspecting victims. And criminal investigations are hunts where criminals are tracked and caught. Such metaphorical language pervades not only discourse about crime, but nearly all talk about the abstract and complex. Are such metaphors just fancy ways of talking, or do they have real consequences for how people reason about complex social problems like crime?”

The scientists designed 5 experiments meant to answer the question: do we reason about complex social issues in the same way that we talk about them, through a patchwork of metaphors?

In experiment 1 they gave people a report about increasing crime rates in the City of Addison (a fictional place) and asked them to propose a solution. For half of the participants, crime was metaphorically described as a beast preying on Addison, and for the other half as a virus infecting Addison. The rest of the report contained crime statistics that were identical for the two metaphor conditions. The results revealed that metaphors systematically influenced how people proposed solving Addison’s crime problem. When crime was framed metaphorically as a virus, participants proposed investigating the root causes and treating the problem by enacting social reform to inoculate the community, with emphasis on eradicating poverty and improving education. When crime was framed metaphorically as a beast, participants proposed catching and jailing criminals and enacting harsher enforcement laws.

In experiment 2 they stripped the description to the bare minimum, but retaining the metaphor (“Crime is a virus/beast ravaging the city of Addison”). They again found that participants in the two conditions offered different problem solving suggestions.

In subsequent experiments they found that mentioning the metaphor at the beginning of the narrative was more effective in influencing the response than if it was used at the end. Furthermore, when asking the participants to get more information about the crime problem, the source of information was influenced by the metaphor. By way of example (not actually mentioned in the paper), people who received the ‘beast” metaphor would have been more likely to seek further information from NRA publications. Those who received the ‘virus” metaphor would have been more prone to seek further information from a Department of Justice or a CDC publication.

This study, for the first time, establishes and quantifies in a rigorous way the effect of metaphors on our thinking. It is a landmark study that should not be confined to linguistic classes in universities; it should be widely disseminated and discussed. The average citizen should become aware of how speech exerts subtle influences on our thinking. When such a tool is exploited by charlatans and political demagogues it can have a corrosive effect on our democracy. Critical thinking and awareness is the antidote.


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