Lakoff: Metaphor and War

Two articles by George Lakoff (Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics, UCal Berkeley) analyzing the mode of thought and language in public discourse on Syria from the perspective of cognitive science and linguistics:




Obama Reframes Syria: Metaphor and War Revisited

By George Lakoff, September 6 2013.

President Obama has reframed his position on Syria, adjusting the Red Line metaphor: It wasn’t his Red Line, not his responsibility for drawing it. It was the Red Line drawn by the world, by the international community — both legally by international treaty, and morally by universal revulsion against the use of poison gas by Assad. It was also America’s Red Line, imposed by America’s commitment to live up to such treaties.

The reframing fit his previous rationale for the Red Line: to uphold international treaties on weapons of mass destruction, both gas and nuclear weapons. By this logic, the Red Line therefore applies not just to Assad’s use of sarin, but potentially to Iran’s development of nuclear weapons.

The new version of the metaphorical policy has broad consequences, what I have called systemic causation (that goes beyond the immediate local situation) as opposed to direct causation (in this case applying just to the immediate case of Assad’s use of sarin).

Some will call the reframing cynical, a way to avoid responsibility for his first use of the Red Line metaphor. But President Obama’s reframing makes excellent sense from the perspective of his consistent policy of treaties and international norms, which he has said was the basis for the Red Line metaphor in the first place.

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Metaphors can kill, as I wrote in my original Metaphor and War paper in 1991 on the eve of the Gulf War. Why can metaphors kill? Because metaphors in language are reflections of metaphorical thought that structures reasoning, and thus our actions, both in everyday life and in politics. In politics, they are rarely isolated. They usually come as part of a coherent system of concepts — usually a moral system.

The Red Line metaphor can stand a bit of linguistic analysis. The metaphor is based on a conceptual frame: “Drawing a line in the sand” means that the person who draws the line issues a threat to the person on the other side: you cross the line and I’ll hurt you. This frame presupposes another common conceptual metaphor: Performing A Kind of Action Is Being In A Bounded Location, and Changing a Kind of Action is Moving to a New Location.

Examples are “He pushed me into running for office” and “I stopped short of punching him in the nose.” The Red Line metaphor says that some actions are characterized as being located on one side of the line, and other actions are seen as being located on the other side. Switching from the first kind of action to the second is seen as crossing the line. The “red” in Red Line can stand either for danger: high alert, or for blood — the harm that will come from crossing the line will be bloody.

The Red Line metaphor is part of a system that includes the Punishment metaphor and the Send-A-Signal metaphor. The Punishment metaphor comes from the application of Strict Father morality to international politics. People commonly construe international politics in terms of family dynamics, based on a World Community as Family metaphor. Within this metaphor, some countries are seen as “heads of the family” while others are construed as children whose behavior must be regulated. One common version of this metaphor is based on the Strict Father family. In a Strict Father family, the father is assumed to know right from wrong, to set rules that are right, and to teach his children to do what is right by punishing them painfully when they do wrong. The punishment must be painful enough so that the child will refrain from acting immorally. The father is morally required to punish. If he doesn’t, he shows weakness and the children will start doing what they are not supposed to do because they can get away with it.

Versions of the Punishment metaphor are typically used by conservatives in many domains: No “amnesty” for “illegal aliens” (who crossed the line). Punitive drug laws. Stand your ground laws. And so on.

In President Obama’s use of the Punishment metaphor, America is the Strict Father, and bad political actors like Assad are bad children, ready to do bad things at the least sign of weakness in America, the Father who knows right from wrong and is the only one strong enough to enforce the rules — as John Kerry says, “The Indispensible Nation” in maintaining a moral order in the world.

Why is Obama using the Punishment metaphor as the basis of his policy? The Punishment metaphor is not a mere metaphor. When it is the basis of policy it comes with a form of scenario planning, a literal account of what is expected to happen. Scenarios are conceptual narratives — stories — that have become part of the policy-making process. In the Obama scenario, Assad, when punished, will stop his bad behavior of using poison gas on his citizens.

At this point, the Send-A-Signal metaphor fits. In the Strict Father family, the Father has to warn the children of what will happen if they do wrong. In Obama’s use, there is a further conceptual metaphor, the Actions Speak Louder than Words metaphor, in which Acting Is Forceful Communication. This fits the Punishment scenario: the act of punishing Assad will communicate to other bad actors that America will seriously harm them too if they cross the line. In the scenario, the bombing of Assad’s military is thus a moral act — preventing the use of gas and other weapons of mass destruction and hence, saving countless lives, not just in Syria but around the world.

Where conservatives tend to think in Strict Father terms, liberals tend to think in terms of a different morally-based family model — the Nurturant Parent model, which two equal parents whose main concern is empathizing with their kinds, being responsible for their safety and fulfillment, openly communicating with them, and expecting them to act that way toward others. Diplomacy in foreign policy is more along the lines of the liberal model, open discussion and reaching agreement without punishment. Obama’s instincts are liberal. He has tried diplomacy over and over, to no avail. His goals are nurturant and caring. But he also sees himself as a pragmatic liberal: when nurturance fails, you resort to strictness. You use strict means to a nurturant end.

There are two scenarios for this. Obama is taking the broad systemic causation route pointing to the maintenance of treaties and the deterrence of other bad actors. But liberals like the NY Times‘ Nick Kristof take the direct, not systemic, route: How can we save lives in Syria now? His argument: Degrading his ordinary weaponry will make it harder for Assad to kill at the rate of 5,000 people a month, and thus can save immediate lives. “…It’s plausible that we can deter Syria’s generals from deploying [sarin] again if the price is high.” This is a version of the rational actor model, with Syria’s generals as the rational actors seeking to maximize utility.

But there is no reason to think that Assad and his generals are rational actors. Saddam Hussein was not a rational actor either. He fought to the end. Will Assad? Is he trying to show that he is more masculine than Obama, or is he standing up for the superiority of the Alawite/Shiite version of Islam, of for his family’s dominance? Will a limited form of punishment and rational actor considerations bring him to the bargaining table? If the answer is no, then the Obama initiative is likely to fail.

In the Nurturant family, Dad and Mom are equals, diplomatic discussion is the norm, and painful physical punishment is not. Map that onto the Syria situation and you can see why Obama is at odds with traditional liberals, whose Nurturant metaphor for politics tells them to avoid the use of force. With Congress, he is trying diplomacy — the Nurturant means to achieve Punishment, the Strict goal. The result is confusions and strange bedfellows. Conservatives would naturally tend toward punishment. But in a Strict Father family, the father’s authority over everyone else must be maintained. Conservative morality, following this principle, leads conservatives to value the authority of conservatism over liberalism, which tends to make them vote against Obama, even when they agree with the content of what he is proposing.

In a true strict father family, the father is the ultimate authority, over not just the kids but also the mother. Dad doesn’t have to ask Mom for support when he punishes Junior for disobedience. To those with strict values Obama looks weak both when he tries diplomacy and when he turns to Congress as a statement of democracy. Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense who helped take the nation into the Iraq War, stated the position as follows: “…leadership requires that you stand up, take a position, provide clarity and take responsibility…”

In the strict father model, you fight to win, not to help your side gain a limited advantage and then back off. That is the John McCain model. It is not an argument over the details of a limited strike. It is an argument over the goals, but put forth as an argument over details.

The president says the “military action” is “limited.” Secretary Kerry says that we don’t want war, and he frames the “military action” as “not war”– No boots on the ground. No attempt to take over the country ourselves. But the president can direct further action to prevent poison gas from falling into the wrong hands. The generals respond — call it what you want, it’s war. If you’re a sailor on a boat shooting missiles at Syria with 13 Russian boats nearby monitoring the missiles you shoot, you will experience it as war.

Korean War vet Rep. Charlie Rangel says, “There is no such thing as a limited war.” Those of us with memories that long remember when Vietnam was seen as a limited war, as was Iraq. The metaphor of concern is the Mission Creep metaphor: as the ultimate goal is seen to be harder and harder to achieve, the scope of the war slowly expands, and the Mission creeps bit by bit past its limits. The Mission Creep and Limited War metaphors contradict each other.

The Limited War metaphor depends on another metaphor, the Surgical Strike metaphor: the missiles are so carefully calibrated that they can strike only the projected military targets and no innocent civilians. We were told this in Iraq. It wasn’t true. The use of the Surgical Strike metaphor raises hackles among Democrats who remember its use in Iraq.

Part of the Limited War scenario is the Degrading metaphor: our current goal in bombing is to “degrade” Assad’s military capacity. It is hard to that to be false, since any lessening of the military capacity, no matter how small, would degrade the military capacity, at least somewhat. Since it is not said how much “degrading” is to count, that means that “success” is assured, at least in the short run.

But what about the long run? What about systemic causation?

It is interesting to hear members of the House and Senate providing most of the arguments against the bombing. Will it just not help? Will it spur a wider war? Will Israel be bombed and gassed? Will Russia enter? Will America be hated and targeted for revenge? Then there is the Slippery Slope metaphor: Once you start bombing, you slowly get pulled into a regional war one step after another.

Metaphor after metaphor. Scenario after scenario. On all sides. To have an opinion is have metaphors and a scenario, that is, a story. Why? Every policy that is proposed is seen by those who propose it as being right — not wrong or irrelevant. Different policies have different moral views about right and wrong. Since moral systems all make use of conceptual metaphor, there will be metaphors and accompanying scenarios.

One of the most interesting is the Force-of-Shame metaphor: Put the money we would otherwise use on bombing into serious and obvious humanitarian aid for the two million Syrian refugees. Instead of money going for bombs and missiles that may not help and even make matters worse, do some very obvious good. The sight of Americans just doing something unquestionably good for Arabs — mostly followers of Islam — would do unquestionable good, and make America look good in the Arab world. In the metaphorical scenario, this would shame Assad and bring most of the Arab world to the support of the rebels. That’s the scenario.

Would it work? From the wide-ranging interviews on Al Jazeera America, most of the Arabs and followers of Islam interviewed seem to see the world in fairy-tale terms — with villains, victims and heroes. Many want America to be the hero, defeat the villain Assad, and save the Syrians. Others see America as a villain for wanting to bomb or for standing aside while 100,000 died. But, the refugees, being outside the hero-villain narrative, are outside the fairy tale. The hero defeats the villain and gets a reward. The hero doesn’t give humanitarian aid.

We cannot think about a situation as complicated as Syria without conceptual metaphors and scenarios driving policy proposals. In many cases, the conceptual metaphors are unconscious. But with Syria, the policy-defining metaphors are being put into language and are showing up front and center.

In summary, I can’t help but think of a great paper by Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon called “Why Hawks Win” (2006) about those who planned and carried out the Iraq War. The authors listed examples of all the forms of what they call “System 1 thinking” — fast, unconscious, effortless, nonrational forms of thought and all too real.

Here is their list as it might apply to Syria:

  • Optimism bias: John Kerry speaks very optimistically about how a strike will necessarily deter Assad, send a message to would-be gassers, and maintain America’s standing in the world.
  • The fundamental attribution error (assigning actions to inherent essences, rather than external reasons): there are bad people out there who want to harm us — just because the want to.
  • The illusion of control: We can keep the military action limited. There will be no boots on the ground.
  • Reactive devaluation: Those against the military strike are unrealistic.
  • Risk aversion: We cannot risk not acting. We should just punish Assad and do no more. We don’t want to go to war.
  • The salient exemplar effect (with striking cases people tend to overestimate probability): Look at the dead gassed children and think of that happening to your children. We must stop this now.

These are real forms of thought and they occur naturally.

Kahneman proposes that we can avoid the effect of unconscious, fast, nonlogical thought by using slow, conscious, logical System 2 thinking (this is the classical view of conscious rationality). But brain and cognitive science research suggests otherwise. Linear, conscious reasoning makes use of massively parallel unconscious reasoning that makes use of conceptual frames, metaphors, and narratives — and the forms of thought just described above. In the case of Iraq, the policy-makers Kahneman and Renshon correctly cite were conscious, slow-thinking policy-makers using logic and statistics — and in doing so used unconscious System 1 thinking.

No matter how slow or conscious or logically you think about Syria, you will still use metaphors and scenarios of the sort discussed above. They are inevitable in a situation like Syria.

It is vital that we be made aware of all this. Metaphorical and scenario-based thinking is not necessarily false. Conceptual metaphors and scenarios have real inferences that may or may not fit the world. America will act, or act by not acting. There will be real-world consequences in either case. We need to keep track of the metaphors and scenarios that lead to those consequences.

See George Lakoff, The Huffington Post, September 6 2013.

(Emphasis added)


Systemic Causation and Syria: Obama’s Framing Problem

By George Lakoff, September 14 2013.

Every language in the world has a way in its grammar to express direct causation: a local application of force that has a local effect in place and time. You pick up a glass of water and drink it: direct causation. You bomb a hospital, destroying it and killing those inside: direct causation.

No language in the world has a way in its grammar to express systemic causation. You drill a lot more oil, burn a lot more gas, put a lot more CO2 in the air, the earth’s atmosphere heats up, more moisture evaporates from the oceans yielding bigger storms in certain places and more droughts and fires in other places: systemic causation. The world ecology is a system — like the world economy and the human brain.

From infanthood on we experience simple, direct causation. We see direct causation all around us: if we push a toy, it topples over; if our mother turns a knob on the oven, flames emerge. And so on. The same is not true of systemic causation. Systemic causation cannot be experienced directly. It has to be learned, its cases studied, and repeated communication is necessary before it can be widely understood.

The daily horrors in Syria are direct: shootings, bombings, gassings. When the media reports on “Syria” (as it should), it is reporting on the direct horrors. If “Syria” is the problem, the problem is the daily horrors, the 100,000 killed, the ongoing shootings and bombings, the persistent hatred and oppression. If the president is understood as addressing “Syria,” and he proposes directly bombing Syria, the natural question is whether that eliminates the daily direct horrors. When he admits that it does not, when Secretary Kerry says correctly, “There are no good options in Syria,” the question naturally arises, “Why bomb when it won’t solve the direct problem, but might create other problems?”

To President Obama, “Syria” is not primarily about direct causation. It is about systemic causation as it affects the world as a whole. It is about preventing the proliferation of poison gas use and nuclear weapons. It is about the keeping and enforcement of treaties on these matters. That is what he meant when he said that the red line is not his, but “the world’s red line,” “the international community’s red line.” The president has a broad perspective. To him “Syria” does not just mean Syria; it means the effects of the horrors in Syria on the world. “Limited” bombing in Syria is not about directly stopping the horrors there; it is about an attempt to prevent proliferation of gas and nuclear weapons and about an attempt to move toward a peaceful resolution.

But the president has not made this clear, and he could not possibly do it in one speech, given that most people don’t viscerally react to systemic causation, and many don’t understand it at all. He could only do it by discussing it overtly, distinguishing what is systemic from what is direct, and repeating it over and over. Even then, it would be a hard sell for cognitive reasons — even though he has good reasons to base his policy on it.

Then there is Russia. In his September 10 speech, Obama addressed the Russian plan to take control of the poison gas in Syria from Assad’s hands, which Assad has assented to. He discussed the plan, but never mentioned why the usual rational distrust of Russia should not apply here. It shouldn’t apply because taking control is in many ways in Russia’s interests: there are business interests, and there are many Russian citizens in Syria working on technology or going to college or married to Syrians. An American bombing could lead to gas falling into the hands of jihadists from Chechnya and elsewhere, who could use gas in terrorist attacks on Russia. Russia has a very strong interest in taking control of Assad’s poison gas and we can trust Russia to act in its interests. But the president didn’t say that Russia has a real interest in a peaceful diplomatic resolution in Syria, just as we do. Why not? Given the deep suspicion of Russia in the American psyche, that is a hard sell, too.

Just as there are no easy direct options in Syria, so there are no easy direct short-run communication options for a reasonable policy based on systemic causation. The reason is that the communication of unfamiliar ideas like systemic causation is itself a systemic problem. You can’t just mention it once and expect it to be widely understood. It has to be repeated over time by a lot of people in a lot of situations.

As a result, the president’s logic of limited bombing is not understood: he wants to bomb to prevent the systemic effect of the use of poison gas, not to stop the direct killing via other means, which we cannot stop. Obama has two hard sells, which for cognitive reasons lie beyond his immediate control. Systemic causation is not a natural concept that is automatically learned. In the September 10 speech, these ideas were mentioned, but they were not put front and center. And moreover, there has been no communicative groundwork over the past five years that would help citizens understand the logic of systemic causation versus direct causation and how it applies to Syria and other issues of our times.

See George Lakoff, Nation of Change, September 14 2013.

(Emphasis added)