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Framing Political Messages with Grammar and Metaphor

How something is said may be as important as what is said

Teenie Matlock

Framing with Metaphor

In elementary school, we also learned about metaphor. Through reading literature, we learned that metaphor is used to create a special effect or feeling. William Shakespeare was the master of this. In his Sonnet 50, “How Heavy Do I Journey on the Way,” for instance, Shakespeare metaphorically depicts the process of grieving from the loss of a dear friend as a journey that moves him from one emotional state to another: “My grief lies onward and my joy behind.” The journey is portrayed as heavy and effortful: “The beast that bears me, tired with my woe, plods dully on, to bear that weight in me.”

2012-11MatlockF3.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageMetaphor is not restricted to literature. It pervades everyday conversation, blogs, text messages and many other forms of everyday language, including political ads. Linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson (no relation to the fictional political candidate Mark Johnson mentioned in the study above!) have argued that metaphor is much more than a literary device. They claim that metaphor is in fact a basic mechanism that enables people to understand one kind of thing, particularly something abstract, in terms of another thing that is more familiar and based on direct experience. For example, through our experiences with physical actions—walking across rooms, driving cars, riding bikes, reaching out to grab objects and watching others do the same hundreds of times each day—we are able to make sense of expressions like “Bob stepped into a bad situation,” “The instructor will walk us through the speech,” and “Have you reached a conclusion yet?” In each of these examples, motion verbs describe a state change but no actual physical movement takes place.

2012-11MatlockF4.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageMotion metaphors run rampant in campaign-speak. Some are innocuous and merely describe candidates’ reflections on the current state of affairs. Right after the 2012 Olympics, for instance, Barack Obama shared his thoughts on the campaign ahead: “This is not going to be a race like Usain Bolt, where we’re like 40 yards ahead and we can just kind of start jogging 10 feet before the finish line,” referring to the Jamaican sprinter who won three gold medals at the games in London. “We’re going to have to run through the tape.” Here Obama used phrases such as “race,” “jogging” and “run through the tape” to describe his campaign as a footrace, and he suggested that he would need to power across the finish line to win on election day. Around that same time, Paul Ryan, who had just been chosen as Mitt Romney’s running mate, commented, “We’re going to win this campaign. We’ve got the wind behind us. I’m really excited about this race.” Ryan’s comment was consistent with a race metaphor, but his use of “got the wind behind us” suggested that victory would be relatively easy. In many other forums, both Democratic and Republican candidates routinely talk about campaigns as races in this way.

Democratic campaign messages are emphasizing the idea of forward motion in this year’s election. One Obama commercial titled “Forward” implies forward movement, first downward and then upward. To emphasize upward movement and to recruit other metaphorical elements, namely about improvement (“Things are looking up,” “blue skies”), a long list of Obama’s accomplishments, including, “4.2 million jobs saved” and “$100 billion invested in science and research” scroll upward. The ad ends with Obama stating that “America is on the way up.” Interestingly, Obama’s forward messages are consistent with the phrase “stay the course,” which was used by Republican Ronald Reagan when campaigning for president in the 1982 mid-term elections, and later by George H. W. Bush in 1992.

2012-11MatlockF5.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageRepublicans seem to be using a variety of motion metaphors. Mitt Romney’s website implores donors to help him “turn America around,” suggesting that America needs to return to a different place, where it was before. This metaphorical framing is strengthened with campaign phrases like “It’s time for America’s comeback team.” The Republicans frame their message in this way to imply that the country has been going in the wrong direction under President Obama’s leadership and that change is needed. (Note that in the 1992 election, challenger Bill Clinton appealed to change using literal language: “Change vs. more of the same.”) And in a recent Republican Party ad, Paul Ryan promises to “put the nation back on a path to renewed prosperity for all,” suggesting that the country has been derailed and needs to be put back on track.

Using motion metaphors to frame messages in political campaigns is well motivated. It is in line with a large body of findings in cognitive science on how humans are wired to mentally simulate motion in all sorts of conditions, including even when nothing is actually moving. In 2004, I published results from an experiment on the interpretation of fictive motion sentences, nonliteral statements that include motion verbs but describe no actual motion. I discovered that people simulate a fleeting sense of motion when they interpret sentences such as “The road goes through the desert,” “The trail runs through the wood” and “A fence follows the property line.” In a 2005 study with collaborators Lera Boroditsky and Michael Ramscar, I found that interpreting fictive motion sentences that varied by direction, such as “The road goes all the way to New York,” and “The road comes all the way from New York,” caused people to reason about time differently in a seemingly unrelated task. The results of these studies and others I have done provide evidence that people simulate motion even when motion is metaphorical. The results are in line with findings from neuroscience. When people view static images depicting humans in motion (for example, a man throwing a discus), motion perception areas in the brain are activated. When they view static images of humans moving along paths (for example, a man walking down steps), they mentally “fast-forward” to a position slightly farther along the path. And when people observe a human extending a hand to grasp an object, it activates the same brain areas that would be activated if they were doing the action themselves.

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