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Why Metaphor?

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Metaphor has long been the core of everyday American political communication. How many times have you heard a politician say, 'We must level the playing field about x,' or 'We need a war' on (poverty) (drugs) or (you name it)'? The Metaphor Project takes its name and its mission from this reality. American sports metaphors are probably the most common ones in actual political speech, with the war metaphor a close second. George Lakoff has explored the different 'nation is a family' metaphors Americans use in Moral Politics.

Professor Lakoff's research provides powerful new evidence about the role of everyday metaphor in the way we think and communicate about everything. Biologist E.O. Wilson explains why this is so in Biophilia: metaphor provides a way for our brains to process large amounts of information at survival speed. Mentally classifying one thing in terms of another helps us sort our experience into familiar categories so we can quickly decide how to respond in new situations.

A good example of this process was the national debate in 2001 about how to frame 9/11: was it an act of war, a crime, or the symptom of a disease? The choice of metaphor is always a choice about what story to believe and how to act, because a metaphor is a highly condensed mini-story about something. In the case of 9/11, the choice of metaphor has carried fateful consequences. 9/11 seen as 'an act of war' has led us to the 'war on terror' and to actual war in Iraq.

Metaphor is also the key to genuinely inspired political leadership. For example, back in the 90's, former President Clinton urged us to build a 'bridge to the 21st Century.' Anti-GMO activists use novel metaphors like 'frankenfood' (Frankenstein + food) and 'terminator seeds' (the Terminator + seeds) to get attention and signal big trouble ahead in our food system.

See also: Metaphor: A Definition, Some Ways Metaphors Appear in Sentences, and Visual Metaphor.