Could a simple change of phrase help to change the world?
Today I want to ask you to start paying more attention to your metaphors.
I know what you’re thinking: “What the hell do metaphors have to do with social change?”
A lot, actually, so I hope you’ll hear me out. I believe some of the metaphors we all live by are limiting our growth both as individuals and as a society. Sound far-fetched? Read on.
Let me start with an anecdote: A couple weeks ago my friend D sent along an NPR ASKS survey requesting input on LGBT/straight etiquette. My friend questioned the point of the survey, commenting “Manners are manners, aren’t they? Do we really need a ‘special’ etiquette?”
“This,” I replied, “is like asking an editor of the English language if we need to understand the ‘special’ versions of English they speak in Canada, the UK, Australia, etc. Short answer: If you want to be good, then yes.”
What happens when we view my friend’s question through this LGBT etiquette=language=cultural communication metaphor? First, our thought process moves from a controversial social subject (i.e., LGBT/straight culture) to a more emotionally neutral one (i.e., the way people speak English in different countries). Then, once the scary emotions are played down, it follows that the most sensible strategy is one that’s based on mutual respect, good will, and cooperation.
See what I mean about how metaphors can further or hamper social change? In fact, it’s frequently our metaphors that determine whether we choose cooperative or combative strategies when we relate with each other.
Much as this may sound like the musings of a stoner or a sociology teacher, the idea is actually one I stole from a client, a cognitive linguistics student whose Master’s thesis I edited last week. The paper propounded a Big Idea that seems simple but reverberates through everyday life in unexpected ways: Metaphors frame our lives. We should question them.
The argument is based on a 1980 book called Metaphors We Live By. The authors, linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson, famously argued that we don’t just use metaphors for writing and speaking, but also use them cognitively and socially to help us make sense of our relationships. That is, metaphors are built into our social interactions.
A famous example is the metaphor that RATIONAL ARGUMENT IS WAR. (Caps not optional to Lakoff and Johnson, for some reason.) Our belief that critical discourse is the same as combat shows up in how we exchange ideas about difference, with all sorts of attitudes and behaviors radiating out from this idea. Lakoff and Johnson give the following examples:
- Your claims are indefensible.
- He attacked every weak point in my argument.
- His criticisms were right on target.
- I demolished his argument.
- I’ve never won an argument with him.
- You disagree? OK, shoot!
- If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out.
- He shot down all of my arguments.
OK: Does anybody else find this absolutely fascinating?
What if, for instance, we swapped the metaphor, and instead of ARGUMENT IS WAR we think of an argument as, say, a smorgasbord of ideas? Or maybe as alchemy, a quest to meld and refine ideas into something of value and elegance?
What if, in other words, the strategy embedded in the metaphor did not imply that arguments are supposed to be a zero-sum game? Think of how that would change our lives.
And it turns out that many of the metaphors we live by have just been handed to us unexamined. To give a few examples from Lakoff and Johnson:
- TIME IS MONEY.
- HAPPY IS UP; SAD IS DOWN.
- RATIONAL IS UP; EMOTIONAL IS DOWN.
What if the metaphors we’re living by simply aren’t useful anymore? If we can’t see how they structure our lives, we can’t rethink them when they hinder rather than foment social growth.
This may sound academic, so let me give a real-life example. Roundabout the same time I entered a polyamorous relationship, I started reading up on studies about the benefits of a particular type of meditation called loving-kindness meditation (or metta). At its root lies the idea that kindness and compassion can be cultivated by spending a few minutes each day visualizing love and radiating it outward toward others and inward toward yourself. Essentially, metta meditation propounds a conception of love as a muscle that you can learn to strengthen and flex.
I didn’t realize when I started practicing metta how radically this metaphor of love would shore up my shift away from monogamy. Like Lakoff and Johnson’s TIME IS A LIMITED RESOURCE metaphor, the metaphor of love as a scarce resource is the basis of most people’s relationships. Love is popularly conceived of as a commodity with its own economy of supply and demand.
But the conception of love in metta—as a muscle that you can learn how to flex to lift up yourself and everyone around you, even people you dislike—is fundamentally incompatible with the idea of love as something to be divvied up and distributed among a strictly limited number of people. In fact, when you expend a bit of energy to strengthen that muscle, you increase your capacity to love more and to love better, and competition over love as a scarce resource no longer makes any sense.
Swapping LOVE IS A SCARCE RESOURCE for LOVE IS A MUSCLE has opened up my perspective and my relationships. It’s also left me much more conscious of how our metaphors can become self-limiting beliefs used to protect ourselves.
Abandoning our cozy old metaphors often amounts to leaving our comfort zones and examining our privilege. For instance, the LGBT etiquette=language=cultural communication metaphor above implies that cooperation based on mutual respect would be the ideal strategy. However, this implies that we have to do the hard work of letting go of our straight privilege and listening to what people who aren’t like us are saying.
And given all the Princeton-privileged-kid nonsense currently being spewed at me by my Facebook feed (ugh), Lakoff and Johnson’s 1980 advice to critique our own social frames is still much needed in American society today.
Samantha Eyler is a freelance American writer, editor, and translator based in Medellín, Colombia. She has written about politics, immigration, Latin America, and social justice for publications such as NACLA and the New Statesman. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.