Analyses of language reveal the extraordinary fact that we use around one metaphor for every ten seconds of speech or written work. If that sounds like too much, it’s because you’re so used to thinking metaphorically – to speaking of ideas that are ‘conceived’ or rain that is ‘driving’ or rage that is ‘burning’ or people who are ‘dicks’. Our models are not only haunted by ourselves but by properties of other things.Will Storr, The Science of Storytelling
Metaphors help us make sense of complex or sensitive information. By offering us a structure for how to think, they point us towards what the problem is, and therefore what the solution should be. Often they slip in unseen. We can use them, repeat them and extend them without even realising it.
If you are communicating about the current pandemic and you are trying to build the case for a responsible, caring and proportional response, then your use of metaphor can either help or hinder.
In the past week, on either side of the UK Government announcing a ‘lockdown’, we’ve been paying close attention to the metaphors being used to talk about COVID-19. We read through a selection of the most read articles in the most read online news media outlets—the BBC, Sky News, the Guardian and the Daily Mail—and have come across the imagery of apocalypse, acceleration, burden, tsunami, invasion, fortification and bottlenecks.
There are many metaphors flying around, but two of the most widely used at the moment are war and crime. Below we examine the implication of these prominent metaphors—alongside some other metaphors to watch (some helpful, some not) over the next few weeks.
War & crime metaphors
As Brigitte Nerlich pointed out, in her recent piece on COVID-19 metaphors: war is the go-to metaphor in a crisis.
We’re hearing it used to talk about the virus itself— “As coronavirus has invaded the world and is threatening humanity…” —which is weird, because a virus doesn’t have malevolent intent. But mostly we are hearing it to talk about the needed government response. And that response is: combating the threat; defending the city; enlisting an army of volunteers; a task force; a support force; shielding people; blockading regions… It’s the toughest response, as we are often reminded, since wartime.
Are war metaphors helpful?
In a time of crisis, the parallel with wartime can be reassuring for some. It might feel appropriate to the gravity of the situation. It can evoke a sense that we’re all in this together.
But there are several reasons we should be careful about using war metaphors.
First off, they justify fighting the enemy at all other costs. In a war, people and resources are all subsumed into the war effort. Normal priorities and concerns are swept aside, and the government (and military) assume more top down control. Of course, some of this is a literal description of what is happening now (and, arguably, needed to some extent). But we are not at war. This metaphor encourages us to accept sweeping and possibly authoritarian powers without them necessarily being appropriate to the situation.
As Simon Jenkins put it in The Guardian: “War is the absolute last resort of a nation facing existential collapse. It implies extreme violence. Words such as battles, fights, enemies and threats to nations are clearly directed at accreting power and suspending liberty. They encourage xenophobia and attacks on supposed ‘enemy agents’ – at present, Asian communities. To promote this under the cover of any ‘worst-case scenario’ is inexcusable.”
In a war, the moral appeal becomes about ‘obeying orders’ and ‘doing your duty’. If you go above and beyond your duty, you can be a hero, if you don’t do your duty you are a traitor. This frames people, including healthcare workers, as soldiers. And real soldiers go into battle prepared to give their lives for the cause. (There is a nationalist undertone here, as the cause is usually about pursuing the nation’s interest or protecting the nation from threat.)
We are not soldiers, we are not defending our nation. We need to see ourselves as responsible citizens that are part of a connected and interdependent global effort.
Healthcare workers are not soldiers either. We should celebrate the amazing work healthcare workers are doing, but when we frame them as being on the ‘frontline’, or describe them as ‘heroes’, we normalise the idea that they need to be a hero just to do the job. It is dangerous conditions that require heroic behaviour. So we must be careful to stress that doctors and nurses are workers who, like all other workers, deserve safe conditions at work.
Crime metaphors are similar, but a little more subtle. We’ve been coming across language that presupposes the British people are petty criminals, and should be treated as such.
The term lockdown is usually used to talk about confining prisoners to their cells. So the fact that we are all now ‘under lockdown’ already carries an implication that we have done something wrong, and need to be punished. Curfew carries a similar connotation.
And when it comes to the rapid introduction of new guidelines and rules for certain activities, like social distancing, or only exercising outside once a day, the media have been very quick to adopt the language of criminality. Suddenly people are dodging the lockdown, violating the curfew, flouting warnings – and there is a need for stricter, tougher measures.
Strict is for naughty children. Tough measures are for criminals.
Again, there is to some extent a literal nature to this, because there are new rules, and rules can be broken. But in a climate of confusion, where the government advice (and it was advice, at this point) was not always clear, or changing rapidly, most people were not deviously plotting how to break the law and get away with it. They were just going for a walk in the sun with a friend.
Both war and crime metaphors are unhelpful because of what they imply about the type of leadership we need. The government’s main role in this situation is not to fight a war, or to manage criminal activity. Its role is to foster trust and community, and manage services and support systems responsibly.
Metaphors to watch
The bad, and the ugly?
We’re hearing a wide range of deeply embedded race and contest, journey and travel metaphors being used to describe the growth trajectory of the virus – accelerating, racing, ramping up – and the need for us to outpace it in our response. “When the infection curve goes up it rockets”. There is of course a real growth trajectory that needs to be truthfully communicated. But language that implies the virus is completely out of our control stokes feelings of panic and helplessness. It obscures the reality that there are decisions that will impact the rate of acceleration.
We’re watching metaphors that imply the democratic process is slow and burdensome – “…emergency legislation introducing measures to respond to the outbreak has cleared its first Commons hurdle”. As is the case with war and crime metaphors, this framing of accountability processes can be used to justify sweeping authoritarian powers that go beyond what is strictly needed for dealing with the problem.
Some of the imagery being used to talk about the impact of coronavirus on us – suspension, pause, halt – is about everything just pausing for a while. Time to take a breath, time to reflect on what is important. We’re hearing a mixed response to this. For many reasons we like it: It implies that we are in something temporary, and with some possible silver linings, which seems like a good counterweight to the crushing urgency and doom we might otherwise feel. But it’s jarring to talk about being in a ‘pause’ when for many people (health workers, parents), this situation means working flat out. And it is extremely delicate to point out any silver linings of a situation that is directly killing people, and exacerbating existing injustices. (A stark and awful example of this is the spike in domestic violence reported over the weekend.) On balance, we feel this is a metaphor that could do more harm than good.
We’ve been looking out for imagery that describes people around the world as being interconnected, as it is both accurate and helpful for understanding the impact of and solutions to COVID-19. Early on, and most notoriously with the ‘herd immunity’ debacle, we were hearing people described as herd animals. Although herd implies a collective, it also implies a certain mindlessness (‘following the herd’). The body metaphor of society – or, in the past, the ‘body politic’ – talking, for instance, about the backbone of services, the NHS as the heart of the country – is potentially a good way to describe how we are part of a connected whole. Body metaphors, though, are most commonly used to imply that the body is the nation, and that we need to protect the nation from external threat. To avoid narratives that are xenophobic and othering, we have to be careful with using metaphors that are about protecting the nation, and try to extend these to cover people in a more universal sense.
Boris Johnson used the metaphor of crucible in a speech on Mother’s Day: “Yes, this disease is forcing us apart – at least physically. But it is also the crucible in which we are already forging new bonds of togetherness and altruism and sharing.” When we talk about building, forging, restructuring, incubating change, we are appealing to the potential of positive, long term transformation in the wake of this crisis. But, again, appealing to any positive outcomes must be done with the utmost sensitivity.
It is potentially helpful at the moment to draw on metaphors that situate us in a journey with a certain arc—an arc that is ultimately hopeful but going to be difficult and painful along the way. We’re hearing this implied in statements like ‘it’ll get worse before it gets better’, ‘there is light at the end of the tunnel’. These metaphors can be useful for preparing us for what is ahead, and giving us some perspective. They can also focus minds on where we want to go, prompting the question: What is the world we want to come out of this into?
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These are just some of the metaphors we’re hearing, and we want to know what you think of the selection and the analysis. Are there good ones that we’ve missed? Are there pitfalls or positives we haven’t seen?
The power of metaphor lies in its ability to structure our thinking: To understand COVID-19 in the right or wrong way; to believe, or not, in the solutions; to feel hopeful or fatalistic about the future. At a time of tragedy, when the course of action is still being set, it is one of the tools we must draw on with care.