The Politics of Language: A Primer on Conceptual Metaphor Theory
Language can be a tricky tool in communication -- often convoluting instead of simplifying the transmission of meaning. Despite it being the very fabric that social communication is woven into, we are occasionally reminded of its perplexing nature. One of language’s subtler tools that has evaded scrutiny is the metaphor, despite the potent ways in which it influences our everyday perceptions.
While metaphors serve as literary devices, their applicability is not confined to a literary medium. Individuals can be persuaded using metaphors through visual media. Case in point: the media trial of Rhea Charoborty, representing her in predominantly ‘modern’ (read: revealing) clothing to portray her as the ‘bad woman’. The politicised and semiotic use of metaphors have succeeded in poisoning communities against each other and aggravated conflicts between social groups, swayed political opinions, as well as distorted public opinion regarding many liberation movements.
To understand the power of a metaphor -- let us take a closer look at Conceptual Metaphor Theory.
Understanding Conceptual Metaphor Theory
Conceptual metaphor theory (CMT) was first proposed in 1980 by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their book titled Metaphors We Live By. They sought to include comprehensive linguistic data to endorse the argument that there are actually metaphors of thinking or "conceptual metaphors." The theory explains how metaphors can dichotomously serve to equate abstract concepts with concrete ones.
To illustrate, there is always a 1) source and a 2) target, where the nature of the target is explained by equating it with one or more traits associated with the source.
Consider this: time is a particularly abstract concept, so in order to converse about time, we often use spatial terms as a source. For instance, the expression, “you must leave the past behind,” does not imply that the past is something tangible that must be dropped off around the corner.
Using spatial terms to talk about time is so embedded in our consciousness that we don’t even consider this to be a metaphorical conversation. However, research shows that priming people with varying conceptual metaphors of space actually does influence how the temporal lobe encodes information regarding the concept of time.
There is also a salient difference between the ways in which metaphors are encoded. The degree of similarity between target and base was found to be strongly linked to metaphor suitability and interpretability as well as metaphor encoding speed. For instance, “She is the black sheep of the family”, ‘she’ becomes the target, and ‘black sheep’ the base. This can be either interpreted through comparison mapping or categorization mapping. In the process of interpreting a metaphor through a comparison strategy, we look at the similarities in the target and the salient features of the base.
However in case of categorization metaphors, the base is first put into a larger category and then the target is placed in the same category. Even with the presence of different mapping strategies, the larger question imposed by metaphor usage is whether it is a conventional or a novel metaphor. “Love is a natural disaster”, is a relatively novel metaphor, which means that the person will use their schematic knowledge to understand the similarities between the target and the base and then either compare them or categorize the target metaphor. In this case, this will be motivated by what the person understands by love, as it is an abstract noun and lacks an objective definition. The more abstract the target the easier it is to describe it in terms of a novel source.
Language as a Tool to exert Socio-Political Control
Similarly, conceptual metaphors—whether novel or familiar—have been employed to both structure as well as challenge narratives. Whether in politics, gender discourse, law and everything in between, we are privy to the power of metaphors. While in some cases these metaphors can bridge the gap between two groups, other times they can definitely aggravate perceived differences. For instance, equating certain groups with animals (or a particular animal) triggers the gradual process of their dehumanization.
From Nazis labeling the Jews “disease carrying rats” to Americans calling Japanese soldiers “vermin” during the first World War to the Britishers equating Indians with dogs, metaphors have often been a tool for the proliferation as well as justification of horrendous violence.
Animal metaphors have also surrounded and shaped notions of gender. Across cultures, women have been called chicks, birds, geese, and hens who can be flighty, broody, or feather-brained (not to mention bunnies, kittens, and other pets). Similarly, men have been called pigs, dogs, bulls, and perhaps a plethora of other things that haven’t always had a positive connotation, and the metaphors surrounding the trans community and non-binary persons keep getting more and more poisonous everyday. But why is it that metaphors that have served a destructive or negative purpose seem more salient than the positive ones? According to research, people have a mechanism that easily draws attention to negative stimuli. This way, when a group offers their metaphorically constructed criticism for another, their objective is to vilify the other group in order to establish themselves as better or superior. Even when the criticism is targeted at one aspect of the group, it is often overgeneralized, and the perceived positive qualities get quashed.
But with overgeneralizations of communities, genders, etc. there has also been a way to understand the nature of the so called “exceptions” without rethinking the stereotypes associated with the group. Consider this analogy offered by social psychologist Mark J. Landeau: people tend to see groups as containers where all its contents are homogenous, thus perceiving everyone within the group to be alike. In such cases, when people come across a member of the group who spills out of the bounds of the container (does not adhere to the stereotypes associated with the group), they get re-fenced. Members of a group who don’t fit the stereotypes associated with that group, are often categorized as an exception, which is termed as re-fencing. The liberal Muslims rhetoric is a good example of how people re-fence Muslims who are perceived as not having any close attachment with their religion. Another recent example would be the use of the term “Khalistani terrorists” for protesting farmers from the Sikh community. This, however, is a different kind of re-fencing. Here, the Sikh farmers were deemed to be an exception, in order to maintain the genial and compliant image of the Sikh community.
Religious, gender, caste, or national identity is not the only one that has been privy to the simultaneous usage of dehumanizing metaphors and re-fencing. This duo has targeted professions, social-justice movements, and everything else under the sun.
Re-fencing and Feminism
Not unlike other social justice or liberation movements, feminism has constantly critiqued the language that is deeply embedded into our notions regarding gender. With theorists like Crenshaw and Butler detailing the importance of intersectionality, the conversation regarding the role language has played in shaping ideas has become extremely important. But over these years, feminism has had to deal with analysing the language that has been used to critique the movement itself. Think about the reckless ways in which the term Feminazi has been used. The term which was popularized by Rush Limbaugh, is a term equating feminists with nazis, stating that it referred to women who are celebrating the increasing number of abortions. While it was as bogus as a “critique” gets, its popularization resulted in an outpour, where every feminist who went “too far” was being labeled a feminazi. As stated by Helen Lewis—a British journalist who has had to bear the brunt of the feminazi label quite often— in an article published by The Guardian “the idea of conflating a liberation movement with Nazism is just deeply ignorant. It’s self-undermining, because it’s so over the top.” The term juxtaposes a movement about liberation from patriarchy with one of the most heinous mass destruction that humanity has ever seen. This juxtaposition can ultimately serve as a conceptual metaphor and reinforce people’s already misguided views surrounding feminism; which is what it did. The term, although targeted at feminists who “crossed the line”, was ultimately used as a tool to call every assertive woman over the top, in an attempt to silence them. However this oh so valiant plan soon became problematic and faced heavy criticism, so here we are now, creating binaries within feminism; re-fencing as usual. But the question that needs to be asked is: Are metaphors inherently exclusionary?
Metaphors are characterized historically and psychologically, but they are still a simple cognitive tool for solving analogic problems. They are context-sensitive and, in cognitive science, they are symbolic representations of truth just the same as visual structures and schemas. While they have often accompanied destructive or prejudicial ideologies, it is definitely not the only foundation that they can be built on. If a metaphor has the power to create divisions, it can also have the power to bind people together; to propagate love and acceptance instead of hatred and vilification.
Simran Hora (she/her) is a Mental Health Advocate at Nolmë Labs. She spends her time reading research papers and old books, and you are likely to see her spontaneously break into song every five minutes!
Bougher, L. (2012). The Case for Metaphor in Political Reasoning and Cognition. Political Psychology, 33(1), 145-163. Retrieved August 16, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41407025
Carver, T., & Pikalo, J. (Eds.). (2008). Political language and metaphor: Interpreting and changing the world. Routledge.
Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (2008). Metaphors we live by. University of Chicago press.
Landau, M. J. (2016). Conceptual metaphor in social psychology: The poetics of everyday life. Routledge.