Minding our metaphors

Jason Mahn (Augustana College) has a new piece in the Christian Century that explores the American reliance upon war metaphors in times of crisis, including this current pandemic. It brought to mind the classic, still powerful book Metaphors We Live By (1980, with a new afterword in 2003) in which the authors (George Lakoff and Mark Johnson) show how metaphors are not merely rhetorical flourish but reveal and even cement how we think about the world. For example, consider how our language about arguments is saturated with war images (“she shot down and destroyed my argument”), how time becomes associated through language with money, and the various ways in which we describe our minds using the terms of machines. (These examples are mentioned in this short helpful overview). It’s one of those books that subtly changes how you think and potentially how you speak.

In his timely reflection, Jason writes:

War language is the language of power. After early forays into glib optimism and empty assurances, politicians are now invoking war to exhibit clear resolve, to demonstrate that they are girding their loins to prepare for battle…

The language of war mostly carries out its mission in garnering collective resolve and justifying the moral righteousness of those engaged in battle. But sometimes it carries out other missions too.

Jason briefly considers how the actual declaration of war following 9/11 helped Americans come together and find meaning in the face of an inexplicably horrible event. He then attends to some of the effects of such war-mongering (actual or metaphorical)—that it often goes hand-in-hand with efforts to identify an enemy and then to dehumanize them and that it orients us almost exclusively toward the future “without attending to how we’re living in the present.” He takes this latter insight from the work of Deanna Thompson (St. Olaf College), who has written about the prevalence of battle metaphors within cancer culture. Following her lead, Jason suggests, we might ask the following types of questions:

What will it mean for our country and world to live well with this pandemic? Will we be patient and kind? Will we be able to truthfully accept and faithfully bear this tragedy, even as we try to conquer it? How will we care for those who cannot be cured—a question made painfully difficult by the six or more feet of space that separates the dying from their families? How well will we grieve—privately in our homes, locally in shifts of ten, and collectively as a human race?

This last question—how well will we grieve and how well will we remember—was potently asked in this recent essay by Eddie Glaude in the Washington Post. Drawing upon C.S. Lewis’ observation that grief feels an awful lot like fear, Glaude writes:

That sense of fearful grief will be a persistent feature of our national politics moving forward. Americans will carry their dead into the voting booths. Their dead will shadow assessments of the words of politicians. They will hover over our choices about the future of America.

Perhaps we shift into the language of war because it is more comfortable than the real unease and discomfort of fear and uncertainty. Buddhist writers such as Pema Chodron offer helpful insights into how we can learn to face such fear and uncertainty. Not doing so, and defaulting to war and other problematic metaphors, can become a disaster socially as well as personally.

We need to pay attention to how we speak of this current crisis, not only to monitor the political implications (which are serious) but also to invite reflection on it individually. Do we speak of this as a disruption, one that will come to an end as we return to a previous mode? Some seem hopeful of that while others warn against such thinking. Social progressives are animated by the possibilities for total upheaval and social-political transformation, and technological futurists seem to salivate at the prospect of the world moving online—“crisis is opportunity!” Others refer to this as a kind of “pause button,” a needed time of rest and retreat, while parents and other care-givers are utterly exhausted. And there are those for whom the pandemic has already meant financial ruin, which puts to the lie the idea that “we are all in this together.”

There will not be a single language to describe what is happening, not even retrospectively. But Jason’s piece invites us to take care with how we (ourselves and others) speak of it.

For further reading: For blog posts written by Jason Mahn, click here. For more on vocation, metaphors and identity, see Mark U. Edwards’ “Vocation as Stories We Tell Ourselves About Ourselves.” On words that seem similar in meaning but entail important distinctions, see Rachel Mikva’s “Optimism vs. Hope – And Other Differences That Matter.”

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