14 January 2011

Metaphors, Superlatives and the Political Discourse

The attack on Representative Gabrielle Giffords last week was an eye-opener and a forceful shock to the entire country. One of the debates that has begun because of the attack is one i wished had started without such a high cost. As a country, we have now begun to focus on the harsh rhetoric of partisan politics. Much of the blame has been unfairly pinned on Sarah Palin. I’ve made it a known how much of a fan of Palin i truly am (not). Yet even if i don’t agree with her politics, or her use of language, i don’t think it fair to paint her as the source of the attack, however indirect.

Yes, Palin marked a map with crosshairs over the representative seats she and other Republicans wanted to take back in the midterm elections. She also used the phrase ‘Don’t retreat . . . reload’ to describe her strategy after a loss. Couple those two together, and after Republicans lost to Giffords in the midterms in a fierce Republican district, it could be interpreted as a call to arms: if the recipient of the call had no concept of illustrative language.

We use it all the time, mostly in the form of similes, metaphors and superlatives.

A simile uses ‘like’ or ‘as’ to compare two things. (The cat is acting like it doesn’t love us.)

A metaphor uses non-literal language to describe something. (You scratch my back, i’ll scratch yours.)

Superlatives are the over-the-top language we use all too often in every day life. (That splinter was the worst pain i’ve ever been in.)

When Palin talks of reloading, and puts crosshairs on a map of United States Representatives, she is not being literal, she is using both metaphorically. Not only that, but she’s not the only political figure using language in this way. The political dialogue for as long as i can remember has been characterized by superlatives and metaphors, especially concerning war imagery. Granted, i’m only 27 and didn’t pay attention for many of those years.

Not to let Pain off the hook. (See, another metaphor; they fill our language like the air we breathe.) During a video response she filmed in response to the accusations thrown at her, she used the phrase ‘blood libel:’

Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own. Especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence that they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible.

Being nearly eight minutes long and with the reflection of the monitor in her glasses, we know the speech was written in advance and not an off-the-cuff response, which makes her use of the term ‘blood libel’ even more astonishing. Historically, it is a reprehensible and false accusation against Jews of killing children and using their blood in religious rites. To use the term this way, especially when Gifford is herself Jewish, is not only careless, but irresponsible.

It presents a further illustration of why the language surrounding and used in our national political dialogue needs to be carefully considered and intentionally weighed for merit and value. You can try blaming the shrinking sound bite, but at least some are saying they are a symptom and not the cause of our increasingly degraded political conversation.

What we can do is applaud the politicians who are doing their best to change not only the language they use, but the environment surrounding the political discourse. A few politicians are calling for mixed seating during the State of the Union address later this month. Historically, the House and Senate have been seated according to the party line, a visible split in how our government runs. This intermingling shows promise to begin a transformation in dialogue we so desperately need.

1 comment:

  1. This entry was like a breath of fresh air. The freshest air that has ever existed, ever. I can't think of a metaphor.