Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Power of Metaphor

It was recently announced that the new administration would discard the term “war on terror.” I cheered aloud when I read that news. Shortly thereafter, two letters to the Baltimore SUN scoffed at the idea that “renaming a war” has any “merit.” Those people are ignoring (or ignorant of?) the power of metaphor. Words shape as well as express thoughts. The metaphorical frames we construct for raw experience shape our real-world responses. The “war on terror” concept grants criminals and outlaws a legitimacy they don’t deserve. It also produces a “hammer and nail” mindset (if your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail). Furthermore, the totalizing image of “war” can be used to justify extraordinary measures that citizens ordinarily wouldn’t tolerate.

Next I’d like to see the abolition of the even more pernicious “war on drugs” metaphor. “Drugs,” like “terrorism,” don’t constitute a nation or group of people against whom we can wage combat. In the case of drugs, we run into more problematic extensions of the metaphor than with terrorism. In a “war on drugs,” it’s not hard to identify the soldiers; law enforcement officers fill that role. But who’s the enemy? Drug dealers only, or all users and addicts? And what would constitute “victory”? A “war on drugs,” like a “war on poverty” (and who’s the enemy there? poor people?), has no end. It’s a potentially infinite devourer of funds and energy, not to mention a justification for ill-considered, extreme policies. (After all, we’re at war and therefore in a perpetual state of crisis, right?) A medical rather than belligerent model of the drug problem could re-frame it in terms that might lead to productive solutions.

As writers, we should be mindful of the power of language and urge others to handle this dynamic resource with care.

Margaret L. Carter (


  1. Margaret, many years ago a Stat prof. asked me, at the end of the course, what I had learned about statistics. After all, I had been his star pupil with a 100% average. When I said, "Gee, Dr.---, I learned that you can make numbers say anything that you want them to say" he nearly had a coronary. The class broke into laughter, and he finally started laughing and said, "Miss Drake, do not tease me."

    The problem that we now face is that our spin doctors have learned to make language say anything that they want it to say. Words which once meant black now mean white, and vvs. No one can tell what the truth is anymore, and as a result, our world stands in danger. We all have the responsiblity of using language accurately, and seeing spin for what it is.

  2. Here's a comment from linguist Suzette Haden Elgin, who wasn't able to get the page to allow her to post:

    "Well said. The metaphor we choose determines the roles we fill and the rules we
    follow, and making that choice without conscious awareness of its linguistic
    consequences is dangerous."