Hello! Sorry for my delayed posts the past couple weeks. This is the end of the quarter at my college. I have been swamped with lesson plans and committee meetings, mired in tests and grading and behind on my paperwork. I have also been trying to keep up with my family obligations and stay on top of paying bills and other household chores. — Isn’t it amazing how many metaphors we use in every day speech?
Back to the blog, I would like to offer a belated analysis of President Obama’s speech on immigration a few weeks ago. At first glance, it may seem that there were not many political metaphors in the speech. However, there were quite a few metaphors that reveal how politicians – and most Americans – think about immigration issues and government policies in general. All of the quotations today are from the speech itself. Italics are mine. You can read the entire speech here at:
Containers/Light and Dark
President Obama took pains to describe how immigrants felt if they did not yet have green cards or their citizenship. Whether or not they came here illegally or had been born to illegal immigrant parents, these immigrants were described as being locked in containers or trapped in cages. Here are a few examples:
In a common hunting metaphor, one way to capture and kill a wild animal is to set a trap for it. A person can leave a trap baited with food, and when the animal enters the cage to eat the food, the animal is trapped. In common terms, when someone is caught in a trap, he or she is not able to exit from a situation. In terms of the immigration debate, President Obama refers to immigrants not being trapped by their past, but who can create a new future for themselves. The implication is that illegal immigrants in the U.S. today are indeed trapped by their circumstances.
Example: “For more than 200 years, our tradition of welcoming immigrants from around the world has given us a tremendous advantage over other nations. It’s kept us youthful, dynamic, and entrepreneurial. It has shaped our character as a people with limitless possibilities – people not trapped by our past, but able to remake ourselves as we choose.”
When a container is filled with solid or liquid materials, it is a common experience to see these materials coming out of the container when it is used. To say something or someone is coming out, it indicates that it or they are being released from a confining situation.
Example: “…students who bravely come out as undocumented in hopes they could make a difference in a country they love.”
A shadow is caused by something or someone blocking sunlight. In English the word shadow can have two meanings. For one, someone in another person’s shadow is trying to be as good as that person who came before him or her. Secondly, someone working in the shadows is thought to be doing something bad or illegal. To say that someone is coming out of the shadows implies the person has been doing something immoral or illegal. President Obama used this expression in several different ways.
Example: In describing the immigration activist Astrid Silva, “…she mostly lived in the shadows – until her grandmother, who visited every year from Mexico, passed away, and she couldn’t travel to the funeral without risk of being found out and deported.”
Example: “And undocumented immigrants who desperately want to embrace those responsibilities see little option but to remain in the shadows…”
Example: After describing the benefits of his new executive order: “…you’ll be able to apply to stay in this country temporarily, without fear of deportation. You can come out of the shadows and get right with the law.”
Social situations are sometimes described metaphorically as fabric as if they are part of a piece of cloth. While fabric can be used as clothing which can be a strong, protective covering, it can also be something that is weak and can be torn or ripped apart. Metaphorically we see all of these conditions described in political situations.
Clothing is made out of material or fabric. The concept of fabric can also be used to describe something very broad that is held together by many threads running in different directions.
Example: “I know that some worry immigration will change the very fabric of who we are, or take our jobs, or stick it to middle-class families at a time when they already feel like they’ve gotten the raw end of the deal for over a decade.”
Example: “And undocumented immigrants who desperately want to embrace those responsibilities see little option but to remain in the shadows, or risk their families being torn apart.”
ripping children from their parents
Example: “Are we a nation that accepts the cruelty of ripping children from their parents’ arms? Or are we a nation that values families, and works to keep them together?”
Houses and Machines
We commonly describe the creation of something abstract as if it is something physical we are building. This usage can apply literally to buildings, machines or any physical object, while metaphorically the verb to build can apply to any abstract process or social relationship.
Example: “First, we’ll build on our progress at the border with additional resources for our law enforcement personnel so that they can stem the flow of illegal crossings, and speed the return of those who do cross over.” [Note the use of the river metaphor here stem the flow, discussed in an earlier post.]
Fragile objects and machines can be described as broken if they are no longer intact or do not function properly. Once a machine is broken, someone must make the effort to fix it. President Obama described our immigration program as being broken and needing to be fixed.
Example: “But today, our immigration system is broken, and everybody knows it.”
Example: “When I took office, I committed to fixing this broken immigration system.”
Example: “I worked with Congress on a comprehensive fix, and last year, 68 Democrats, Republicans, and Independents came together to pass a bipartisan bill in the Senate.”
Games and Rules
Whenever a game is played, the participants must agree to set of rules to avoid arguments and controversies during the game. Anyone who cheats or does not follow the rules is not respected and usually not asked to play the game after that point. In politics, candidates, government officials and businesses must play by the rules of their particular state or government with respect for the other people involved. In discussions of immigration, people from other countries must play by the rules in order to obtain citizenship.
Example: “Families who enter our country the right way and play by the rules watch others flout the rules.”
Just as in the concept of playing by the rules in a game, we can also describe being right or straight in one’s behavior. This common metaphor is derived from our experiences with shapes and lines. When a line is drawn directly from one point to another, we say that the line is straight. Describing something that is straight implies that it is true, clear and direct. The word right also has its origins in describing a straight line. President Obama often referred to proper behavior by illegal immigrants is by being straight or right with the law while referring to honest behavior as simply being straight as well.
Example: “And let’s be honest – tracking down, rounding up, and deporting millions of people isn’t realistic. Anyone who suggests otherwise isn’t being straight with you.”
Example: “You can come out of the shadows and get right with the law.”
Example: “Are we a nation that tolerates the hypocrisy of a system where workers who pick our fruit and make our beds never have a chance to get right with the law?”
pathway to citizenship
A path is a small, narrow road. Metaphorically, we speak of a path as being a process or a way to achieve a goal. There is also a similar term pathway that is yet another word indicating a manner of doing something. The process of becoming an American citizen is often described as being a pathway to citizenship.
Example: “I worked with Congress on a comprehensive fix, and last year, 68 Democrats, Republicans, and Independents came together to pass a bipartisan bill in the Senate. It wasn’t perfect. It was a compromise, but it reflected common sense. It would have doubled the number of border patrol agents, while giving undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship if they paid a fine, started paying their taxes, and went to the back of the line.”
In summary, even though there were not many metaphors in President Obama’s speech on immigration, there were a few examples that reveal how we think about these important issues. Most of us know that illegal immigrants are living in the shadows while liberals and conservatives seem to disagree on whether or not they should come out of the shadows and become citizens or if they should be deported. We also compare our immigration system to a broken machine that needs to be fixed as if it is an old car engine. But to fix this machine the immigrants must play by the rules as if it is a football game, and be right with the law as if they are walking on a straight line. If the immigrants succeed they can be on a pathway or journey to becoming American citizens.
Most of us believe that immigrants, whether legal or illegal, add a valuable amount of diversity and hard work to the fabric of our economy and our society. My own ancestors come from Ireland, France and Sweden. I think most of us – unless we are Native Americans – can trace our heritage back to other countries. Let us celebrate our diversity!
Next time: Metaphors of Physical Forces in Economics