Metaphors help us to frame, understand, and evaluate new things. They draw our attention to certain ideas and ways of thinking. More importantly, but often invisibly, they draw our attention away from things. They hide things, or make certain ideas seem unreasonable. These are three common metaphors, how they shape our thinking, and questions to ask to be critical of what they may leave out.
The Military Metaphor
The military metaphor often persuades us to make sacrifices, and to bind together as a community. It also creates a story of good and evil, or us versus them, that is easy understand. We see this metaphor used when we describe people as ‘working on the front lines’, or needing to make sacrifices to win the war on climate change. The NSGEU campaign ‘Heroes Unmasked’, with posters on Halifax Transit busses draws on this metaphor.
What this metaphor may also do is persuade us to think that ‘heroic sacrifice’ is normal, natural and good. When we believe this, it can be used to justify not providing fair compensation and putting people at high risk of harm. As workers are now protesting: “Calling us heroes doesn’t pay our bills”. Important questions to ask when you encounter this metaphor are:
- Who are we expecting to make sacrifices, and what are we expecting them to sacrifice? Is this fair?
- Who is the ‘victim’ in this war? Are they truly innocent?
- Who is the enemy? Does this enemy have evil intent? Or is it non-human, inanimate, or a concept, rather than a person, and is without intent or agency?
The Global Community Metaphor
The global community metaphor often makes us forget that there are real people who make decisions and who live with the effects of those decisions in our world. We see this metaphor when we talk about countries or geopolitical regions as if they are people, for example in recent headlines such as “Russia steps up missile barrage” or “Europe scrambles to help Ukraine”. When we understand countries as people, we can attribute inherent goodness or evil to their actions, and see actions taken by them as restoring, or disrupting the moral balance. It also solidifies the importance and naturalness of geopolitical boundaries as if they are boundaries of a solid body. In reality, boundaries have been drawn and re-drawn by people, and there may be more similarities among, than differences between, people on either side. This may lead to racism and xenophobia. Important questions to ask when you encounter this metaphor are:
- Who is making the decisions that are attributed to a country?
- What people are experiencing the effects of these decisions?
- Are all individuals in a national ‘body’ actually similar, and responsible for, or affected in similar ways by, political decisions?
The Natural Disaster Metaphor
The natural disaster metaphor can be used to shift responsibility away from people. After all, we can’t control the weather, so framing something as a flood, fire, tsunami, or hurricane implies that its occurrence was out of everyone’s control, and therefore no one’s responsibility. It prompts a reactionary response, rather than long-term, sustained preventative measures. We saw this metaphor during COVID when the WHO was worried about a tsunami of Omicron cases, a tsunami that the health system was not ready for. The result was a response that braced for the tsunami’s impact and healthcare issues that occurred in its wake. What this may lead us to forget is that we didn’t build a healthcare system that was tsunami-proof, and maybe we should have. Important questions to ask when you encounter this metaphor are:
- What could have been done earlier to prevent this event from having an effect? Whose responsibility was it?
- What elements of this event are within our control?
- Is this a ‘disaster event’ that occurs within a small window of time, or part of a larger, continuous, and ongoing issue?
Metaphors help to make complex, confusing things into a clear story. However what is left out of this story is often the very complexity that we need to be critical of current events. When you encounter these metaphors, you have the opportunity to think critically about what they are persuading you to think, the picture they are painting, and what they are drawing your attention away from.
Image source: Peggy Dyre via Pixabay