Game of competing truths

Posted by on April 18, 2011

In our next guest post in metaphor month Dan Clayton talks about metaphor in politics. Dan is an English teacher and a Research Fellow at UCL’s Survey of English Usage on the Teaching English Grammar in Schools project. He blogs over on English Language @ SFX.

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Politics is a game of ‘competing truths’, claimed the Labour MP Douglas Alexander at a recent conference, and while that will probably be news to people who think that truth and politicians are two words that don’t naturally go together, it’s not a metaphor that’s particularly new. In the same article, the Labour MP Jim Murphy was quoted as saying that his party needed to achieve the target of ‘a score draw on the deficit, and a win on growth against the coalition’.

It’s very common for politics to be described in terms of competitive sports like football (“Andrew Lansley scored a spectacular own goal today”) or cricket (“David Cameron hit for six over trip cost”) or even as warfare (“Joanna Lumley ambushed Immigration Minister Phil Woolas”) and perhaps the layout of the British House of Commons lends itself to the image of massed ranks of opposing armies, goading each other across the battlefield, like enemies in a slightly better-dressed version of Braveheart or, worse still, a visit to Millwall’s New Den.

But it’s not just the metaphors used to describe political arguments that are worth a look; it’s also the metaphors used by politicians to describe and sell their policies. A recent discussion about the economic crisis in the UK (and much of the rest of Europe) came down to two metaphors. Should we be talking about cutting the deficit or closing it?

The argument about the metaphor to use is important because it gets to the heart of what the economic problem is and how opposing sides view it being solved. While the Chancellor George Osborne has talked before about the UK “maxing out its credit card” and running up a huge debt, many economists argue that it’s not really about debt at all, but about deficit. A debt is a sum of money you owe, while a deficit is a gap between (say) income and outgoings.

To talk about cutting a deficit is to bring to mind images of taking an axe to services, the cutting metaphor (to mix a metaphor) cuts both ways: it suggests attacking debt, which will appeal to many, but also chopping up and destroying public services, which is generally a less attractive picture.

To talk about closing the deficit suggests a calmer and more measured process, showing in the words of Labour Councillor, Adam Harrison that “deficit reduction is about getting two sides of the equation right” and making clear the “need to achieve growth”.

So in opting for different metaphors here, two opposing models seem to be created. In the red corner (to use a boxing metaphor) we have the apparently rational, balancing act of matching one side of an equation to another, while in the blue corner we have an axeman lurking.

And perhaps this is the appeal of metaphor in politics. Because the issues themselves are invariably so complex and the economics so tangled, metaphor can briefly show us a simpler, apparently clearer choice between the options available, show us a momentary difference between two competing teams and let us choose sides.

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