Dorothy Crenshaw January 19, 2011 | 02:59:37

Tucson And The Power Of Metaphors

When, in the aftermath of the Tucscon tragedy, some linked it to Sarah Palin’s gun sight map, I was actually irritated. Any attempt to politicize what happened is revolting, and it seemed like a red herring at best. (In my book, images don’t kill people, semiautomatic weapons kill people. But this blog is about communications.)

We use military analogies in PR and marketing speak all the time. Brands battle for share, we’re always in agency shoot-outs, we target different customer segments, and things blow up. It means nothing, right? Most of these terms have lost their association with violence, at least in a business context.

But what about others? Casual and private speech is one thing. How the most influential figures in media, culture, and government debate the issues of the day may be another. After all, we communicators give a great deal of weight to our choice of words, particularly in preparing speeches for corporate and political leaders. Each turn of phrase is carefully crafted to convey the attributes we want linked to the company or brand. It made me think again about the power of the metaphor in heated political rhetoric like much of the speech we heard last summer when the, uh, war to pass healthcare reform was being waged.

That’s why I was fascinated to hear author James Geary speak about effect of metaphors on our unconscious. Geary, the author of “I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World,” makes the case that metaphors in political rhetoric and imagery have a profound and largely non-conscious effect on us. I also consulted a family member who’s a clinical psychologist about metaphors and their potential to influence unstable individuals. Here’s what she wrote:

Metaphors are very powerful. They influence everyone, the mentally stable and the unstable. However, it may not be that the metaphor has greater influence for the unstable, but only that the unstable have less control over their impulses. The thoughts and emotions stirred up by a metaphor could be more likely to lead to impulsive behavior in the unstable for that reason.

She pointed me to “Therapeutic Communication,” a textbook by Paul Wachtel. Wachtel states, “every overt message… carries with it a second message, a meta-message … that conveys an attitude about what is being conveyed in the focal message.” So, the language or imagery chosen by a person, particularly an authority figure like a therapist, or an elected official, can convey not only the literal message, but also their attitude about what they’re saying. An authority figure using a military or violent metaphor may be subtly implying their endorsement of such behavior.

Words, images, how we communicate – it all matters, both literally and metaphorically. That certainly doesn’t mean that overheated rhetoric is why the shooting happened. It isn’t. But the aftermath has served as a reminder for many of us in communications to respect what we do, and to do it wisely.

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