Why War? Metaphor and War

Why War? Metaphor and War, by George Lakoff (AlterNet, Mar 18 2003).

One of the most central metaphors in our foreign policy is that A Nation Is A Person. It is used hundreds of times a day, every time the nation of Iraq is conceptualized in terms of a single person, Saddam Hussein. The war, we are told, is not being waged against the Iraqi people, but only against this one person. Ordinary American citizens are using this metaphor when they say things like, “Saddam is a tyrant. He must be stopped.” What the metaphor hides, of course, is that the 3000 bombs to be dropped in the first two days will not be dropped on that one person. They will kill many thousands of the people hidden by the metaphor, people that according to the metaphor we are not going to war against.

[...] One of the fundamental findings of cognitive science is that people think in terms of frames and metaphors — conceptual structures like those we have been describing. The frames are in the synapses of our brains — physically present in the form of neural circuitry. When the facts don’t fit the frames, the frames are kept and the facts ignored.

It is a common folk theory of progressives that “The facts will set you free!” If only you can get all the facts out there in the public eye, then every rational person will reach the right conclusion. It is a vain hope. Human brains just don’t work that way. Framing matters. Frames once entrenched are hard to dispel.

See also earlier pieces on the first Gulf War and metaphor (part 1, part 2). Also, more recently, his commentary on on the “war on terror” and other conservative catchphrases.

There are also a few excerpts from his’ book Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think available online.

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