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What do you see?

January 15, 2010

Hello again,

Now that President Obama has been in office for a year, it is interesting to look back at his interpretations of key issues to understand how he sees the situations. Politicians try to shape ...

...our view of things through the language they use. Think of George W Bush (ouch). He quickly transformed the attack on the World Trade Center from a criminal act to a war. Once he had instilled the idea that we were at war he had to identify an enemy in order to wage that war. The “war” on terror thus became the excuse for all subsequent military action.

However, as George Lakoff has pointed out in a penetrating article, Metaphors of Terror, http://www.press.uchicago.edu/News/911lakoff.html, the military professionals found this a difficult description because none of the conventional elements of war were present. Therefore, Lakoff suggests, new metaphors were needed to shape a view of the perpetrators:
First, Bush called the terrorists "cowards"—but this didn't seem to work too well for martyrs who willing sacrificed their lives for their moral and religious ideals. More recently he has spoken of "smoking them out of their holes" as if they were rodents, and Rumsfeld has spoken of "drying up the swamp they live in" as if they were snakes or lowly swamp creatures. The conceptual metaphors here are Moral Is Up; Immoral Is Down (they are lowly) and Immoral People Are Animals (that live close to the ground).

The article goes on to examine the Bush administration’s foreign and economic policy and the way public discourse on such issues is, in a horribly Orwellian, manner, conducted in such a way that we too start to see the situation as they wish us to see it.

So what of Obama? Is trying to open up our view of the issues or restrict them to whatever serves current US needs? In another interesting paper, Shaping Economic Reality, http://gnovisjournal.org/journal/shaping-economic-reality-critical-metaphor-analysis-president-barack-obama-s-economic-langua, Josh Scacco notes that Obama has used three main metaphors for the economy: the economy is a person; it is a building and it is a journey.

Of the first metaphor, Scacco comments:
It is easy to understand why many politicians have related the economy and the human body: the movements (rising, falling) and conditions (depression, weak, anemic, sluggish, recovery, strong) are characterized similarly and in a personal way (Lakoff, 2009, Lecture). A person’s most basic frame of reference is their body – its movements, aches, and pains. Projecting these onto the economy has a powerful cognitive and persuasive impact of explaining the current “condition” of the economy.

The building metaphor plays heavily on the concept of firm foundations, and the journey suggests the goal of a better destination but with many obstacles ahead. What Scacco suggests is that Obama’s language lays the basis for the view of government as physician, builder and guide. Food for thought don’t you think?

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