When I read Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson shortly after it was published in 1980, I was fascinated by their explanation of the many ways in which conceptual metaphors shape human perception and communication.
The principal of the school where I was working at the time was particularly fond of sports metaphors. The staff was a team, we had to play by the same rules, we had goals which could be sidelined by distraction and discipline problems, we were either players, coaches, or captains as the whim took him. Winning meant improved scores on standardised tests, losing was not an option.
I began finding more examples of conceptual metaphors in my reading and conversation, and especially on television. The idea was striking… we naturally and spontaneously use metaphors to express ourselves, but the metaphors we use not only reveal our thinking, they shape it!
Awareness of the power of conceptual metaphor goes a long way in helping us understand the deep-set differences between the Republicans and the Democrats. I have been watching this again as the political campaign heats up. I will watch for it in Mitt Romney’s speech when it comes on in a few hours.
Political significance and involvement
Lakoff’s application of cognitive linguistics to politics, literature, philosophy and mathematics has led him into territory normally considered basic to political science.
Lakoff has publicly expressed both ideas about the conceptual structures that he views as central to understanding the political process, and some of his particular political views. He almost always discusses the latter in terms of the former.
Moral Politics (1996, revisited in 2002) gives book-length consideration to the conceptual metaphors that Lakoff sees as present in the minds of American “liberals” and “conservatives”. The book is a blend of cognitive science and political analysis. Lakoff makes an attempt to keep his personal views confined to the last third of the book, where he explicitly argues for the superiority of the liberal vision.
Lakoff argues that the differences in opinions between liberals and conservatives follow from the fact that they subscribe with different strength to two different metaphors about the relationship of the state to its citizens. Both, he claims, see governance through metaphors of the family. Conservatives would subscribe more strongly and more often to a model that he calls the “strict father model” and has a family structured around a strong, dominant “father” (government), and assumes that the “children” (citizens) need to be disciplined to be made into responsible “adults” (morality, self-financing). Once the “children” are “adults”, though, the “father” should not interfere with their lives: the government should stay out of the business of those in society who have proved their responsibility. In contrast, Lakoff argues that liberals place more support in a model of the family, which he calls the “nurturant parent model”, based on “nurturant values”, where both “mothers” and “fathers” work to keep the essentially good “children” away from “corrupting influences” (pollution, social injustice, poverty, etc.). Lakoff says that most people have a blend of both metaphors applied at different times, and that political speech works primarily by invoking these metaphors and urging the subscription of one over the other.
Lakoff further argues that one of the reasons liberals have had difficulty since the 1980s is that they have not been as aware of their own guiding metaphors, and have too often accepted conservative terminology framed in a way to promote the strict father metaphor. Lakoff insists that liberals must cease using terms like partial birth abortion and tax relief because they are manufactured specifically to allow the possibilities of only certain types of opinions. Tax relief for example, implies explicitly that taxes are an affliction, something someone would want “relief” from. To use the terms of another metaphoric worldview, Lakoff insists, is to unconsciously support it. Liberals must support linguistic think tanks in the same way that conservatives do if they are going to succeed in appealing to those in the country who share their metaphors.