Hello! I feel obliged to write a post today concerning the recent statements in the news that “Words Matter.” Following the two horrific mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, many people blamed President Trump for inciting the shooter in Texas since his screed published online shortly before the attacks used language quite similar to Trump’s recent rhetoric about a so-called invasion of Mexicans into the United States. Trump also recently argued that Baltimore, Maryland was a “rodent-infested” city, and seemed to target Elijah Cummings, an African-American Congressman who lives in Baltimore. Moreover, he also told four female minority members of Congress to “go back where you came from,” a well-known racist trope. Trump’s apologists claim that the El Paso shooter was mentally ill and acted alone.
As a linguist, I must remain neutral in these political arguments. I will leave the assignation of blame to pundits and politicians. Today I would like to talk about how and why these metaphors are so powerful in shaping the beliefs and actions of certain Americans. Linguists have been talking for decades about the importance of language in influencing people’s beliefs. I have discussed this many times in the past few years in this blog space. Back in 2013 I wrote a post called “Do Metaphors Matter?” examining this very topic. I would like to revisit the topic with an expanded analysis including three increasingly large social circles of 1) the body, 2) the family, and 3) the home. I will argue that defending these three areas of our lives can be traced back to our early Homo sapiens ancestors, and can explain the power of many of our current political metaphors.
Readers of this blog are well aware that my approach to understanding metaphors has been inspired by the ground-breaking work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. They were the first to describe how metaphors usage is part of our everyday thinking. Johnson’s book The Body in the Mind describes how many of our metaphors are derived from our experiences of using our own bodies. In my research, I discovered more than 100 separate metaphors based on our body position, using our heads, arms, legs, hands and feet. Thus, we have examples such as facing the problem, standing up for one’s rights, backing a candidates, reaching across the aisle, or getting a stronghold in another country.
Sadly, many of these body metaphors are based on ideas of defending oneself against attackers. We don’t even think about this, but most of the ways we talk about arguments use metaphors such as taking a stand on the issue, confronting your opponent or arguing from a position of strength. In evolutionary terms, this makes sense. We are all familiar with the stories of our ancient ancestors fighting off cave bears or saber-tooth cats to survive. We would not have survived as a species if we were not good at defending our bodies.
At a higher level of awareness and social grouping, we can also talk about the importance of our families in our lives. The idea of belonging to a family is another rich source of metaphor creation on several different generational levels. We talk about the founding fathers of our country, our soldiers in World War I and World War II as brothers in arms, or your latest pet project at work as your baby. We also have the metaphorical expressions of “necessity is the mother of invention” and Uncle Sam referring to the U.S. government. While there are not any metaphorical expressions referring directly to defending one’s family, we can understand that there is a natural instinct among all parents and grandparents to protect their loved ones in case of attack. This is common in the natural world as well. I am not a hunter but I have heard the saying that the only thing more dangerous than a grizzly bear is a momma grizzly bear defending her cubs. It is not surprising that two of our most powerful civil rights groups founded by women have the word mother in the name of the organization, e.g., Mothers Against Drunk Driving which not coincidentally spells out the acronym MADD indicating their anger at all the lives lost to drunk drivers. There is also a group fighting for more gun regulations called Moms Demand Action.
At the next higher level of social group is the sense of home. The notion of home has several meanings. Literally it means the house that people live in with their families. But metaphorically it has other more powerful meanings. A home is much more that a building, it represents the sense of love, family and belonging to a place. In my much younger days I served two years in the Peace Corps in West Africa. The other volunteers and I spoke often of going back home after our service was complete, as do thousands of military service men and women today. Of course, we were not simply speaking of returning back to the houses that we grew up in, but to our family, friends, community and country. We have many metaphors derived from our experience of living in a home, e.g., we call the founding fathers the framers of the constitution as if they were building a house, we talk about opportunity knocking (on the door) and the window of opportunity closing, and some politicians want to make a clean sweep of corruption in Washington D.C. In terms of defending our homes, we also talk about having gatekeepers who maintain order in society, avoiding backdoor activities of corrupt politicians, and more to the point, having our national defense system literally called Homeland Security. The Stand Your Ground laws in some states allow a homeowner to shoot someone who invades their property. It is loosely based on the old British idea that “a man’s home is his castle.” This phrase is loaded with metaphorical power. It involves the sense of standing to protect oneself (the body), or your loved ones (the family) on your ground or property (the home). It’s a triple play for 2nd Amendment proponents who instinctively desire to defend themselves.
In a larger sense, we also extend the meaning of home to include our streets, neighborhoods and communities. And we protect our communities against outside interference. Thus we have the acronym NIMBY, meaning Not In My Backyard, a phrase used by homeowners threatened by the possibility of a landfill, nuclear waste disposal site, a new airport or any other dangerous or noisy development.
What does this have to do with mass shootings? It is pretty clear that it is part of human nature to defend one’s body, family and home for danger. When someone refers to a city being infested by rodents, most of us would shudder in disgust. Anyone who has gone camping has most likely experienced insects crawling over our bodies during the middle of the night. Harmless insects such as ants are annoying, but animals such as spiders or rodents that carry diseases is definitely a dangerous situation. No one would like to think of their homes being infested by creepy, dangerous animals. Also, it is normally the poor urban areas that are infected by rats, poor urban areas which are usually populated by poor people and minorities who have been forgotten by society. Saying that a certain area is infested by rodents is clearly sending a message that the area is in bad condition because of the fault of the minorities to keep the area clean, even though it is almost always the case because the government has not provided the resources to maintain that area. It is rarely the fault of the local people.
When politicians talk about an invasion of immigrants, they too are sending a clear message that immigrants coming into this country is a dangerous thing. The term invasion reminds people of military takeovers, such as Viking attacks in Europe during the Middle Ages, or German invasions of parts of Europe during World War II. What could be more dangerous than an invasion? People are well aware that their homes may be taken or destroyed or their family members could be killed during an invasion. (We also talk about a flood of immigrants as if a tidal wave is coming to wipe out everyone and everything in its path.)
This discussion begs the question of why white people in America are so afraid of African-American, Hispanic, Asian or other minority people in the first place. To most Americans this fear is absurd. Anyone who has lived or worked with people of color knows that they are just like anyone else in the world. They are hardworking, law-abiding, family-loving people. But to bigoted or racist people, minorities represent “the other” — people not like themselves, and thus they cannot be respected or trusted. Where does this idea come from? Sadly it seems to have been part of human evolution for thousands of years. No one knows exactly why Neanderthal Man disappeared. Neanderthals lived in Europe for 400,000 years before disappearing shortly after the arrival of the rival species, Homo sapiens. It is possible that the Neanderthals died off from disease, food shortages or climate change, but they may have also been killed by tribes of Homo sapiens. In human prehistory, most hunter gatherer tribes coexisted peacefully for thousands of years. However, when agriculture was discovered about 4000 BC, towns and cities quickly developed since people could, for the first time, stay in one place to live. Sadly, the development of agriculture led to imbalances of food, money and power. It is not long after that the first records of slavery occurred. It seems to be part of human nature that a group in power will try to subjugate another, less powerful, group of people.
Americans tend to think of slavery as a problem of American history, but of course, anyone who has seen the movie Gladiator, will remember that slavery existed in Ancient Greece and Rome. Also, anyone who has seen the mini series Roots, based on the book by Alex Haley, will remember that the African slave trade, although promoted by Europeans and Americans, was also facilitated by some African tribes capturing and selling members of other African tribes. I happened to live in the West African country of Benin during my Peace Corps service. I have been to the museums in the coastal cities such as Ouidah, where the African slaves were sold off to the American traders. I saw the actual shackles and chains used by some African tribes to capture other Africans. To most people, the idea of selling a person is appalling, as if they were simply property. However, even our revered founding fathers counted slaves as only 3/5 of a person.
This idea of subjugating people also has its origins in something called the Great Chain of Being. This notion also goes back to the Ancient Greeks. The idea was that people lived in the middle of a specific ranked order of beings, animals and plants. In its most famous iteration Medieval Christians assigned the basic order, from highest to lowest, God, angels, humans, animals, plants and minerals, depicted in this drawing from 1579. European kings used this idea to establish that they were closer to God thus higher in rank than ordinary people. Colonial European powers used this idea to justify the horrible treatment they gave to African, Asian and Pacific Island nations as they plundered their natural resources for their own benefits. And of course, 17th century Europeans and colonial American states used this idea to justify slavery as a means of obtaining a free source of labor. Needless to say, our own treatment of Native Americans for the past several centuries has been just as bad.
Although these ideas sound horribly outdated, we find similar ideas in the Bible:
Genesis 1:26: “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”
While this passage is only speaking of humans having dominion over animals, it too has provided justification for hunters to kill animals for no reason. While most modern hunters kill animals only for the meat, or to protect themselves from animals from attacking their families or their livestock, there are still so-called trophy hunters who kill only for the pleasure of killing a rare or dangerous animal. You may remember the public outrage when a beloved lion named Cecil was killed by a trophy hunter in Zimbabwe in 2015.
Sadly, people in many cultures around the world have treated other people as animals, lower in value than humans. You may have read the remarkable book, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, in which he describes the men who hunted escaped slaves as if they were wild animals. Scientists used African-American men as guinea pigs in studies of syphilis at the Tuskegee University in Alabama between 1932 and 1972. Even sadder still is the fact that human trafficking and other forms of slavery still exist in almost every corner of the world. It is perhaps no surprise then that in the United States and other parts of the world, immigrants are seen as less than human, somehow a lower form of life that must be stopped from coming into the home country. These immigrants are a threat to the status quo of the privileged white social class who want to maintain their superiority over less powerful groups. The ultimate irony, of course, is that in the United States, everyone except Native Americans are immigrants. Our ancestors came from other parts of the world at different times in American history. However, immigrants with darker skin, people of color, are judged to be the other, and thus become targets of discrimination and bigotry. The reasons for this bigotry are complex. In addition to the personal reasons of defending oneself or one’s family, there are also economic reasons — the fear of immigrants taking the jobs of Americans, political reasons — the fear that our government will be controlled by minorities, or social reasons — the fear of miscegenation, i.e., that the “pure” white race will be diluted by intermarriage with people of color.
Now, to come full circle to the question of the importance of metaphors, I remind my readers of the work of George Lakoff on the idea of understanding governments in terms of what he calls the metaphorical “Nurturant Parent family” or the “Strict Father family.”
In Lakoff’s model, liberals tend to think of government as nurturing parents who take care of their children. Therefore they expect Congress to ensure a healthy economy, provide health care to the sick, food stamps to the poor and other safety nets to help those in need. In contrast, conservatives tend to think of government as a strict father. In a blog post a few years ago, Lakoff explains this idea further.
“The basic idea is that authority is justified by morality (the strict father version), and that, in a well-ordered world, there should be (and traditionally has been) a moral hierarchy in which those who have traditionally dominated should dominate. The hierarchy is: God above Man, Man above Nature, The Disciplined (Strong) above the Undisciplined (Weak), The Rich above the Poor, Employers above Employees, Adults above Children, Western culture above other cultures, Our Country above other countries. The hierarchy extends to: Men above women, Whites above Nonwhites, Christians above nonChristians, Straights above Gays.”
Needless to say, this metaphorical family structure follows the same logic as the Great Chain of Being dating back to the days of the Ancient Greeks. There are two important points to be made here. First, some conservatives may believe in this sort of hierarchy and act on it thinking they are justified in doing so based on their belief in maintaining the “well-ordered world.” Secondly, people who blindly believe in this moral hierarchy may not think on their own; instead they will just believe what someone else tells them, if that person is in a position of higher authority. For example, years ago a colleague of mine confessed that he did not know who to vote for in the upcoming presidential election, but he wasn’t worried because the pastor at this church was going to tell him who to vote for.
Of course, I am in no way justifying this type of behavior. I am only trying to explain how language and metaphors fit into the schema or world views of some people who try to justify their racist behavior. Words do indeed matter, especially when they incite people to turn their beliefs into actions of killing innocent people for the tragically misguided purposes of maintaining their power in society.