The Covid-19 pandemic has had politicians, and the mass and social media reaching for their metaphors. “We are at war”, French President Emmanuel Macron declared in a television interview. US President Donald Trump declared himself a ‘wartime president’. Not to be outdone, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson invoked Churchill’s Second World War speeches to declaim the virus a deadly enemy.
The ostensible purpose of visual and discursive war metaphors is to emphasise how grave the problems are and how urgent solutions. War metaphors especially aim to capture attention, stimulate emotions, frame the unknown through culturally familiar stereotypes and so channel people’s responses. Metaphors are effective. But how innocent are they? And what part do the media play in disseminating information?
Metaphors involve a sleight of hand: they appear descriptive or illuminating, but always represent something as something it is not. This enables political and media agents strategically to frame ‘political reality’ and to address inexperienced publics as citizens, as a community, as sharing values. An inanimate cluster of RNA is anthropomorphised as ‘the enemy’ who is responsible for all the trouble — usually the ‘non-West’ (e.g. Trump’s ‘Chinese virus’ caused by dirty eating habits) — and allows apportion of praise or blame.
Seemingly commonsense steps like containing and defeating the enemy are naturalised, no matter how grotesquely inappropriate. This neat way of dividing, hierarchising and pitting humans against one another is reminiscent of Gramsci’s notion of cultural hegemony.
Is metaphor really so misleading and inaccurate? Metaphors easily become constitutive of how we imagine the world, as Lakoff & Johnson argued in Metaphors We Live By. Analogies to control appear moderate and reasonable, so are favoured by international organisations which frame ‘the disease as a problem, crisis or disaster’, as ‘spreading out of control’. Such emergencies require handling or managing through measures, regulations and restrictions, which ignores the simple fact that you cannot regulate or manage inanimate objects, but rather human beings.
In the wings lurk more frightening visions. Disease as a killer needs tracking and hunting down, but engenders nigh supernatural fear. Its spectre panics markets and populaces. We are summoned to fight it. It strikes down people and attacks lungs; it batters businesses and economies. Metaphors also batter the mind by encouraging the suspension of disbelief and the deployment of critical faculties.
Many people have seen brilliantly coloured pictures of coronaviruses on television or online. It is rarely pointed out that these are artists’ or computer-generated impressions. The grainy, grey results of electron microscopy are far less dramatic and less likely to induce the desired degree of panic. To calm us, we are offered clips of generic ‘scientists’ working methodically in laboratories as bastions of controlled reason. As the American advertiser Fred Barnard said: “One picture is worth a thousand words”. While you can question and challenge an argument, it is harder to argue with a persuasive image.
At this point, Critical Media and Cultural Studies further our understanding of the wider implications. Articulating one account of reality (one that usually suits those in power) conveniently disarticulates other possibilities. The efficacy of popular metaphors is less to do with how they represent states of affairs than with how they silence alternative explanations. Purporting to marshal a war against a virus distracts attention from a litany of political and corporate failings: ignoring expert advice about known risks, prioritising private profit over public investment and so on. The list is long. We can now understand why political leaders cling desperately to dodgy analogies.
That does not account for why people seem so ready to acquiesce. The commonplace that modern mass and social media enable unparalleled access to information is disingenuous. The term connotes moulding the minds of its recipients (explicit in the Latin etymology informātiō; literally ‘shaping’, ‘giving form to’ ideas or conceptions). If information were not to have this function, what would be point of political speeches, advertising and much else besides?
Consider how television programmes engage their audiences. In Encoding/Decoding, Stuart Hall noted that, if viewers can make up their own minds, producers lose control over meaning. So they go to great lengths to engineer ‘preferred readings’, that encapsulate the ‘dominant cultural order’ and anchor the ‘dominant-hegemonic’ reading that viewers are carefully positioned into accepting.
Does social media live up to its claim to offer genuinely open dialogue in place of such closed monologues? Much online commentary merits the Duke of Wellington’s famous remark: “If you believe that, you will believe anything”. Insofar as social media reiterates the pre-articulated narratives and tropes of the mass media, their claims are vacuous, if not fraudulent.
When the chips are down, mediated metaphors matter in modern societies. Virtually everything we know—whether about our political leaders or viruses—is multiply and irremediably mediated. That is why we need Critical Media Studies.
Professor Mark Hobart is Professor Emeritus for the Centre for Global Media and Communication at SOAS.
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