Metaphorical choices don’t just reflect opinions and actions; they help shape them. So becoming aware of which metaphors are at work—and why—provides an essential reality check in political debate. Bringing metaphorical meanings to the surface enables us to evaluate them, and to decide for ourselves the extent of their influence.
George Orwell believed the political chaos that he felt characterized his time was connected to the decay of language. “If thought corrupts language 267,” he wrote, “language can also corrupt thought.” He had a particular aversion to political language, describing it as “designed to make lies sound truthful 268 and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
The next time you feel yourself being blown away by a political slogan or borne aloft on a flight of impassioned rhetoric, take a moment to mull over the metaphors. After examining the motives behind the metaphor and the associations it raises, you may or may not be just as uplifted. Unlike the subjects in the Lhermitte and Bargh experiments, though, you will definitely know how the effect was achieved.
To stop the decay of language, and thereby help prevent politics from descending into chaos, Orwell urged us to heed Nietzsche’s warning by taking Shelley’s advice—keep political debate vitally metaphorical:
A newly invented metaphor assists thought 269 by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically “dead” (e.g., iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.
Worn-out political metaphors belong in the dustbin of history because language that saves people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves also saves people the trouble of thinking for themselves. And that’s the first step on the slippery slope to chaos. In confronting intractable political issues, it makes all the difference in the world whether the next step is sudden death or extra innings.
Geary, James. I Is an Other HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.