One way of finding out what is this? is to ask what is this like?, deploying metaphor and other forms of allegory. In a study to explore the effects of metaphor on thinking, Paul Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky asked people
‘ … to imagine a “virus infecting a city” or a “wild beast preying on a city” and then to describe the best way to solve the problem that they had imagined. Participants who imagined a “virus infecting the city” universally suggested investigating the source of the virus and implementing social reforms and prevention measures to decrease the spread of the virus. That is, they wanted to know where the virus was coming from, whether the city could develop a vaccine and how the virus was spreading. They also wanted to institute educational campaigns to inform residents about how to avoid or deal with the virus and encourage residents to follow better hygiene practices. Participants who imagined a “wild beast preying on a city” universally suggested capturing the beast and then killing or caging it. They wanted to organize a hunting party or hire animal control specialists to track down the beast and stop it from ravaging the city.’ (Thibodeau and Boroditsky 2011)
Thibodeau and Boroditsky then variously characterised crime through these metaphors: ‘Crime is a wild beast preying on /virus infecting the city …’. They found that people thought differently about crime and favoured different solutions, depending on the metaphor presented to them.
As they suggest, both these metaphors are familiar enough in public debate about crime. ‘A spreading crime problem is a crime epidemic, plaguing a city or infecting a community. Crimes themselves are attacks in which criminals prey on unsuspecting victims. And criminal investigations are hunts where criminals are tracked and caught.’
Another altogether familiar metaphor for crime and responses to it is warfare. War on crime is a metaphor with a long history (Huq and Muller 2008). Since ‘crime’ is not something with which it is possible to engage directly, the war on crime soon becomes a war on criminals. But what kind of a war is this? It is certainly a civil war; perhaps it is a war on our children or at any rate a younger generation; it may be a declaration of war by the powerful against the disadvantaged and dispossessed. Since criminal justice is often racialised in political debate (Wacquant 2001), the war against crime may turn out to be a race war. It is not that those who deploy such metaphors necessarily intend or even foresee such ugly implications, but that the metaphor creeps and spreads insidiously. It is probably in the nature of metaphor that it spreads in unforeseeable directions, meaning and connotation no longer under the speaker’s control. (Presumably the construction of a metaphor begins with a limited and determinate number of points of plausible similarity – x is [like] y in this or that respect. But once invoked it is likely to go beyond the original point of correspondence and lead us to take – or mistake – other aspects of y as features of x.) This has been destructive in thinking about reducing or responding to crime, both in strategic and emotional ways. All of this should encourage vigilance about the use of metaphors.
Now wild beasts and enemies at war are not quite the same. (For example: Can one parley with a wild beast? Try to find common ground or compromise? Negotiate a truce or a peace treaty?) Nevertheless, both beast and participants in warfare are visible enemies, to be met with gross physical violence and weaponry or to be strategically outwitted. None of this makes much sense against a virus, as the participants in the Thibodeau and Boroditsky study recognised. A virus cannot be daunted by displays of aggression or courage; it cannot be flummoxed by a surprise initiative; it cannot (lacking wits, purpose or strategy) be outwitted; its knavish tricks cannot be frustrated. Nor can it show mercy or, by the same token, be ruthless.
Plague and contagious diseases are frightening and bewildering, so just as illness is put to use as a metaphor for other phenomena, metaphors for illness are conjured as people struggle to understand the significance and implications of a pandemic (Sontag 1990). As with crime, warfare presents itself as a ready metaphor and politicians and mass media have been using it promiscuously since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Nigel Warburton names Emmanuel Macron and Boris Johnson among the national leaders who have declared war on the virus, while Andrew Cuomo has described doctors and nurses as ‘the soldiers who are fighting this battle for us’. (Warburton 2020) Warburton goes on to point to some of the dangers inherent in this metaphor. Curtailment of civil liberties is presented as an emergency wartime measure. (Duration is uncertain because a virus cannot surrender or sue for peace.)
There are further unpleasant implications. Hate crime against ‘foreigners’, proxy for an elusive enemy, is believed to have increased markedly (Grierson 2020), sometimes aggravated if not deliberately provoked by politicians like Donald Trump in his hostile denunciation of the Chinese. Just as those treating the sick are soldiers, people contracting the virus are imagined as combatant casualties. Warburton refers to the claims of Dominic Raab who said that Johnson, laid low by the virus, would come through because he was ‘a fighter’. Even sensible precaution can come to be regarded as close to cowardice, with Donald Trump proclaiming that he refused to don protective clothing because he is a ‘warrior’. (O’Leary 2020) The inevitable (and profoundly offensive) implication is that infection results from a lack of fortitude, death from want of resolve or weakness of character. In some parts of America, crowds, packing all sorts of heavy artillery, march the streets to assert their right to freedom. At this point, it is no longer clear who the enemy is – the virus? the state authorities insisting on varying degrees of lockdown? This is among the perils of metaphor. The analogy of war implies an enemy but with no obvious means of engaging this enemy, other targets may have to take its place.
In the UK especially, the coincidence in time of the pandemic with significant anniversaries of the World Wars of the 20th century strengthens the associations with war. This connection may brings benefits in many ways (conspicuously a unity against a common threat), but also imports confusions. The 75th anniversary of VE Day on 8th May 2020 is an example: was this a celebration (street parties) or a commemoration (as implied by a period of national silence)? If it is a commemoration, are all participants honouring the same things? Some people prefer to ponder the heroism of fallen soldiers; others to mourn or to reflect on the horrors of warfare. In the same way, when people come out onto the street to applaud key workers every Thursday evening, are we all clapping for the same thing? (Younge 2020) The meaning to some is that health and care workers are being fêted (or fated) as heroes; other people would prefer that their professionalism, skills and dedication are honoured in other ways – for example, by ensuring they remain safe with proper protective equipment and fairly remunerated for their work. Others again may feel that the acclamation of staff somehow endorses the strategy and management of government. Yet, at least in some places, there is considerable pressure to come outside to clap on pain of being clap-shamed (Middleton 2020). Indeed the clapping for carers and the VE celebrations chime in harmony and a reluctance to participate can be construed as disloyalty.
Thibodeau and Boroditsky found that metaphors have their effects. Importantly, they also found that ‘… the influence of the metaphorical framing is covert: people do not recognize metaphors as an influential aspect in their decisions.’ These metaphors engage us emotionally and cognitively, channelling not only the ways in which we come to think but also how we should feel. Thus metaphors of war, battle and combat prepare the way for a response to the pandemic that has been deeply problematic. As Fatsis suggests, ‘law enforcement has taken precedence over an adequate public health response’ even in a medical emergency (Fatsis 2020). Trading on associations between crime and an enemy at war, some responses are favoured and, no less significantly, others are marginalised or discounted altogether. Fatsis reflects on the role of the police and the threats posed to legitimacy, arguing that
‘Designing public safety, be it from violence or infectious diseases, is not and should not be the exclusive property of the police. It can also be practiced in non-coercive means through investment in healthcare, welfare and upheld through social solidarity and mutual aid, not tainted by suspicion, surveillance, punitiveness, or shaming.’
Putting a society on a war footing can have grave consequences. Notoriously truth is likely to be among the first casualties. Trust is soon in jeopardy and a solidarity that should include everyone is replaced by a closing of ranks against ‘the other’. In the absence of visible or tangible enemy, proxies are sought out. Xenophobia masks itself as patriotism. Offenders are ready targets – not only those who behave deplorably (for example, spitting at people) but even those who are found to have disobeyed regulations, however confusing or arbitrary. As Fatsis puts it, ‘ these regulations convert almost all “normal” social behaviour into anti-social behaviour, thereby turning fundamental rights and civil liberties … into criminal offences.’. Violations are to attract ever heavier penalties. In the same way, the government has been extraordinarily slow in attending to the dangerous conditions in prison – perhaps because prisoners are already enemies in the ‘war against crime’. Prison staff can be kept at risk by being lauded as heroes in the campaign. Opposing views are at risk of being dismissed as appeasement or even denounced as treason.
Metaphor is unavoidable. Sometimes we choose our own metaphors; more often, perhaps, we borrow them from others. In either case, these metaphors can shape our thought patterns and our emotions, sometimes leading us to unhelpful or actively harmful places. We must therefore be vigilant to the metaphors at work and their influence upon us. Or, as someone has recently instructed, Stay Alert.
Footnote. No distinction is made in this paper between metaphor and simile (a failure that would have dismayed my English teachers at school). I am now persuaded that – ‘A simile is just a metaphor with the scaffolding still up’ (Geary 2011: 8).
Fatsis, L. (2020) ‘Inside the COVID-19 State: Protecting Public Health Through Law Enforcement’ British Society of Criminology Blog. Available online at https://thebscblog.wordpress.com/
Geary, J. (2011) I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How it Shapes the Way We See the World, New York: Harper Collins.
Grierson, J. (2020) ‘Anti-Asian hate crimes up 21% in UK during coronavirus crisis’, The Guardian, 13th May 2020. Available online at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/13/anti-asian-hate-crimes-up-21-in-uk-during-coronavirus-crisis
Huq, A. and Muller, C. (2008) ‘The War on Crime as Precursor to the War on Terror’, International Journal of Law, Crime and Justice, 36: 215 – 229.
Middleton, L. (2020) ‘Exhausted mum ‘named and shamed’ for sleeping through Clap for Carers’, The Metro 26th April 2020. Available online at https://metro.co.uk/2020/04/26/exhausted-mum-named-shamed-sleeping-clap-carers-12611114/?ito=cbshare
O’Leary, A. (2020) ‘Donald Trump boasts he’s a “warrior” as he visits PPE factory without mask or gloves’, Daily Mirror, 14th May 2020. Available online at https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/us-news/trump-boasts-hes-warrior-visits-22030085
Sontag, S. (1990) Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors, London: Penguin.
Thibodeau, P. and Boroditsky, L. (2011) ‘Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning’ Available online at https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0016782
Warburton, N. (2020) ‘(Hospital) trolley problems: Some philosophical responses to the coronavirus’ TLS, 15th May 2020. Available online at https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/philosophical-responses-coronavirus-nigel-warburton/
Younge, G. (2020) ‘What, precisely, are we making noise for?’ Financial Times, 5th May 2020. Available online at https://www.ft.com/content/185dd664-83da-11ea-b6e9-a94cffd1d9bf
Wacquant, L. (2001) ‘Deadly symbiosis: when ghetto and prison meet and mesh’, Punishment & Society 3 (1): 95 – 133.
(All hyperlinks accessed 17th May 2020.)