‘Behind Metaphor, More Metaphor’

Every intellectual likes to believe that he is struggling manfully against the hostile zeitgeist, or else what would be the need for intellectuals? His belief that he is not only in the minority but currently losing the battle against the opposing forces of obscurantism and wrongheadedness allows him the pleasures both of self-pity and self-congratulation. He likes to believe that he has suffered for his views (for can there be better evidence of holding the correct opinions than having suffered for them?), while at the same time making a comfortable living from them.

Thus, in our polarized times, self-styled progressives like to believe that they are in retreat against the forces of evil conservatism, not to say reaction, while conservatives like to believe the opposite. And in this titanic Manichaean struggle for the soul of man, everyone must choose his side at all times. Abstention is impossible because every human act, every human utterance, is a de facto vote for one side or the other.

Opening my copy of the Guardian newspaper for 1st February, I was startled by the following headline to a one-and-a-half page spread.

George Lakoff: ‘Conservatives don’t follow the polls, they want to change them… Liberals do everything wrong.’

Accompanying the article was a photograph of a white-haired man, George Lakoff, in a goatee beard and rimless spectacles, in conventionally unconventional dress: that is to say a smart grey jacket (in deference to convention) and a lighter gray collarless shirt of the kind worn in Pakistan and Afghanistan (in deference to transgression of convention). He looks an intelligent and pleasant man, though for my taste his smile resembles a little too much the unctuous Jesus-loves-me-so-nothing-can-upset-me smile of certain evangelical missionaries whom I have met.

Lakoff is professor of cognitive science at Berkeley. I confess I haven’t read him, and know of him only through this article. I hope he will forgive me if I summarize what I take him to be saying.

iStock_000022154112SmallAccording to him people view the world through the lens of their metaphors, which he thinks provide them with the framework of their thought. Since the 1980s, liberals have allowed conservative metaphors to take over their own metaphoric framework, so that all discussions or arguments about social policy are carried out on conservative terms. Liberals waste their time and effort in arguing from the evidence (conservatives, of course, can have no evidence); they should instead be working to get conservatives to accept a different metaphoric framework.

A simple instance of what he means is the use of the term ‘tax relief.’ This term implies that taxation is an illegitimate burden from which people need to be relieved. Professor Lakoff is obviously in favor of high taxes as instruments of ‘social justice’ – that is to say, justice with the desert taken out – and so liberals should avoid the term, replacing it with another, perhaps ‘evasion of fiscal responsibility’ [the latter is my suggestion, not his].

Now there is clearly something in his theory that metaphors are important. My late friend, the development economist Peter Bauer, long ago pointed out that the term ‘foreign aid’ was auto-justifying, for who would be against assistance to the very poor, or at least admit to it? This discouraged examination of or skepticism about the actual effect of foreign aid, because it is so easy to assume that good intentions must result in good.

But discouragement is not the same thing as prevention: if it were, there would hardly have been any point to Bauer’s own writings. The baleful practical effects of foreign aid – famously the means by which poor people in rich countries give money to rich people in poor countries – have by now been pretty much accepted, almost to the point of having become a new orthodoxy. No one now thinks that aid aids just because of its metaphorical associations.

Metaphors are important, then, but not all important. Bauer won the argument, at least for now, not by changing the metaphor of foreign ‘aid’ but by exposing the effects of that so-called aid. At some point the use of metaphor has to stop, there must be a reality that metaphor is about, otherwise it could not be known to be metaphor, and human discussion or argument could be nothing but blind man’s buff. There is a Haitian peasant proverb of considerable metaphysical sophistication: Behind mountains, more mountains. (It would take a book, or at least a long essay, to unravel all the possible implications of this proverb.) For Lakoff, the proverb should be ‘Behind metaphor, more metaphor.’

So how is one to decide which metaphor to choose, which is better or more accurate? Let us take the example of ‘tax relief.’ People often call for more taxes, but very rarely on themselves: they call for tax increases on others, either in the hope of benefiting directly therefrom, or of producing ‘social justice.’ The vast majority of people, both in the past and in the present, experience taxes personally as a burden. I am not a student of history, and am open to correction, but I cannot recall in all of the recorded history of which I am aware a single instance of a revolt in favor of higher taxes for the people who were in revolt. Most national treasuries are permitted to accept free gifts from citizens in addition to the taxes that they pay, but I know of only one instance of an individual who did make such a freely-chosen payment: the poet and classicist, A. E. Housman. If there were no penalties for failure to pay taxes, how many taxes would actually be collected?

The term ‘tax relief,’ then, while no doubt metaphorical in that it has certain connotations, seems more or less in accord with, or appropriate to, both human nature and recorded history. One could hardly ask more of a term than that. This is not, of course, to argue that all or no tax relief must be justified; arguments cannot be only or even principally about the metaphors and connotations of words that are used in their course.

Professor Lakoff uses the term ‘progressive’ freely. Now there is a framing metaphor if ever there was one. What person of goodwill could possibly be against progress, that is to say betterment of the human condition? So if you are a person in favor of progress – in short, a progressive – only the malevolent could disagree with you.

However, there is a rather large question begged here, namely ‘What is progress?’ There is rarely gain without loss, and loss can easily exceed gain. Human action has unintended and unforeseen consequences, sometimes beneficial, often not. Progress in society is not the same as progress in internet speeds. Are the effects of electronic communication, for example, good or bad? Or if both, which outweighs the other? It is possible for reasonable people to disagree.

These are all pretty obvious considerations, hardly original; yet Professor Lakoff seems to use the term ‘progressive’ as if those he calls progressives brought about progress ex officio,as it were, merely by virtue of their self-designation. This is a form of magical thinking. But they could just as well be called immoralists, or moral underminers, from another point of view. That would be misleading too.

Professor Lakoff’s typology, at least as reported in the Guardian, is extremely crude. Both progressives and conservatives are deemed to be of one mind, of one opinion on everything, hence the Manichaean struggle between them. To take only the conservative camp, it is obvious that that there are different and highly conflicting forms of conservatism. To imagine, as the professor appears (or is made to appear) to do, that all conservatives believe only in unbridled and unscrupulous exploitation of the environment in the name of profit and care only for economic efficiency as measured by the profits of corporations, and devil take the hindmost, is a delusional travesty. Whether a person who believed in only those things, if such a person existed, could be called a conservative at all is doubtful, for what would actually be conserved under this imagined (though impossible) dispensation?

Ultimately Professor Lakoff’s view, if I have him aright, is deeply pessimistic. If it is true that it is pointless for liberals to argue from the evidence, it must also be pointless for conservatives to do likewise. Prejudice is all, reason nothing. There can be no resolution of dispute or disagreement except by dishonest manipulation at best and force at worst.

I am by no means starry-eyed about the place of reason and evidence in political life. The best argument in the abstract doesn’t necessarily win in political practice, to put it mildly. But let us look into ourselves, and examine how we change our minds on various matters (as some of us do).

Do we change them the first time it is proved to us that our previous opinion was wrong? We do not. We hang on to our old opinion for as long as we can, usually for reasons of pride and amour propre, being attached to it as we are attached to a favorite dog, and change our minds only reluctantly. There is reason for a degree of obstinacy in our opinions, for it is not admirable to be a leaf in the wind or always the victim of the last plausible opinion one has heard. If we are not to hold opinions lightly, we should not give them up lightly.

But we do nevertheless sometimes change our minds, as reasons to do so seep into our consciousness like water in soil. When we produce evidence to others in favor of our opinion, therefore, we do not, or ought not, expect it to act as a lightning strike on a tree, for they are like us: reluctant to change their minds. That they do not do so straight away is therefore not sufficient evidence of the futility of arguing rationally. We all live in a zeitgeist, and those of us who express an opinion contribute to it, infinitesimally as it might be.

Wisdom is more like a sediment than a valid conclusion from a syllogism with plausible, if not necessarily correct, premisses. We produce our rational arguments in the hope of contributing, eventually, to that sediment, not as an evangelist hoping for sudden conversions.

Theodore Dalrymple

Theodore Dalrymple is a retired prison doctor and psychiatrist, contributing editor of the City Journal and Dietrich Weissman Fellow of the Manhattan Institute.

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  1. R Richard Schweitzer says

    Ah, Doctor,

    In this, to use a metaphor:

    You write as Rossini to Wagner.
    Which comes closer to the human condition!

    You also show that something of value can come from someone’s reading of that particular U K newspaper.

    Cheers! (really)

  2. z9z99 says

    The current progressive fashion is to redefine words and phrases to be more useful to ideological ends (e.g. “thug” is the new N-word), and if you do not adopt the updated and approved definition, it is because you are a bad person.

    …what does Lakoff rhyme with?

    • nobody.really says

      “…what does Lakoff rhyme with?”

      What a mean-spirited thing to ask; I’m disappointed I didn’t think of it first.

      I’ve always heard it as rhyming with take-off. But curiously, I was not able to verify that pronunciation during a quick tour around the web. Neither his personal web site nor Wikipedia clarify this point. Some pronunciation guides suggest the accent should be on the second syllable, giving the name a Russian feel akin to Sergey Lavrov’s.

      And how long should it take to find a YouTube video including an oral introduction of the guy? Too long for me, anyway.

  3. gabe says


    I guess you are right. after all, what are the writing of these Progressives but prurient fantasies put to print?

    speaking of Progressives – what a metaphor that term is.

    What is progressive about the gross reduction in liberty, in toleration for opposing opinions, in forced conformity to the current opinion that takes on a quasi-religious character, and a compelled dependence upon state (Medieval court) functionaries to perform any of life’s little chores but a REGRESSION back to pre-Enlightenment times, the elimination of all labor saving devices because they employ carbon based energy and a reliance upon the Monarchs experts / elite to determine our daily lives, preferences and beliefs. The Old Clergy never had it so good!!!
    Are you kidding me? This is progress.
    Let us play their game and in the future refer to them as the Regressive Party .

    take care

  4. nobody.really says

    “I am not a student of history, and am open to correction, but I cannot recall in all of the recorded history of which I am aware of a single instance of a revolt in favor of higher taxes for the people who were in revolt.”

    I quite agree with this author — with respect to at least one aspect of this statement.

    How many tax revolts can you recall? For most US citizens, I suspect the first one to pop to mind would be the Boston Tea Party. It was triggered, as we all recall, by a change in the tax on tea. But was it triggered by an increase in the tax?

    I’m not telling. If you want to find out, you’ll have to become a student of history. But, as we all know, knowledge of history is entirely optional for most purposes. Indeed, if you want to lead the Tea Party or plan for the occupation of Iraq, it’s an occupational disqualification.

    “People often call for more taxes, but very rarely on themselves….”

    I have to suspect that the great majority of people known to advocate raising the income tax have advocated raising it on themselves. I don’t mean that poor people don’t advocate raising the income tax; I mean that poor people generally don’t get known.

    So, who has advocated raising income tax rates — for themselves and others?

    •“People like myself should be paying a lot more taxes.” – Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO, Berkshire Hathaway

    •“Rich people aren’t paying enough.” – Bill Gates Sr., co-chair, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

    •“I’m rich; tax me more.” – Garrett Gruener, founder, Ask.com

    •”I don’t understand why my tax rate didn’t go up.” – Alan C. “Ace” Greenberg, former chairman, Bear Stearns

    •“It’s so clear what’s needed. But because of the political debate, which the administration has lost, we are going to follow the wrong policy by extending the Bush tax cuts.” – George Soros, Soros Fund Management

    Barak Obama advocated raising income tax rates. Bill de Blasio advocated raising income tax rates. Heck, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush raised income tax rates.

    Of course, we’ve just be discussing raising tax rates. A moment’s reflection should persuade you that pretty much anyone who has ever advocated government spending for anything has, in effect, advocated raising tax – just as night follows day. Even people who are NOT great students of history should be able to think of one or two people in this category.

    • gabe says

      Gee, and here I was thinking that Gates and Buffett weren’t hiding behind numerous tax shelters, charities and foundations to HIDE their money from the government.

      So, no, Nobody, nobody of any substance has truly pushed for their own taxes to be raised.

      Of course, if you were a student of history you would know that instead of accusing Tea Partiers of that same defect.

      • nobody.really says

        How many libertarians are there?

        To judge by gabe’s standards, a libertarian would not be a person who advocates certain restrictions in government actions; she’d be a person who actually eschews all the government policies with which she disagrees. She would not merely argue that schools should be privately run; she would refrain from putting her own kids into public schools. She would not merely advocate that highways be privately owned and maintained; she would also refrain from driving on publicly owned highways. She would not merely argue that it exceeds the proper role of government to run the EPA and CDC; she would actively strive to expose her children to smog and polio. ‘Cuz only a hypocrite would take advantage of the current state of the law while disagreeing with the law.

        Again, any guesses how many gabe-style libertarians there are?

        I advocate repealing the home mortgage deduction; if and when it’s repealed, I’ll stop claiming it. Until then, I’m claiming it. If such things blow your mind, well — sorry for the mess.

        • gabe says

          Just to set the record straight, I am not a libertarian or a Tea Partier. where you deduce and ascribe to me such conclusions is certainly not manifest in my comments or am I simply still intoxicated from my Seahawks victory and am not thinking straight?

          My point about Gates and Buffett was simply this: It is quite easy for them to say that there taxes should be raised BECAUSE they have access to all manner of tax saving devices and expertise which I (and you, I suspect) do not. Knowing that they will probably never be subject to such high rates, it is easy to claim the moral high ground by calling for higher taxes on themselves. This however is belied by the fact that they then lobby to have additional exemptions built into the tax code such that they do not have to pay the higher rates.
          The difference is that the common man does not have access to power – thus, we are not hypocrites for taking advantage of the mortgage deduction – whereas, the Buffetts of the world are. Check out some of the deals he worked out with Obama that allowed him to acquire certain other companies because of tax advantages.
          Also, his empire was initially based upon the acquisition of small companies, the heirs of which had to sell to in order to meet inheritance taxes.
          Gee, did you ever wonder why he advocates no change in the “death tax.” Same with Gates and his father – neither of them will face any serious tax liability upon their demise BECAUSE it is sheltered through foundations.
          Now that is hypocracy – not the Boeing machinist who takes a mortgage deduction.

          sort of like our Hollywood darlings bemoaning the 1% -ers. Maybe they should take less than $20 million per film – so we poor knuckleheads do not have to pay $15 to see the tripe that they put out.

          take care

          • nobody.really says

            Fair enough; I see the distinction. I’m not persuaded by it, but I see it.

            My point about libertarians and Tea Partiers stand, whether you count yourself among their members. But you’re right — I used libertarians as a rhetorical point because I thought you might so identify. No matter; I’ll just have keep fishing….

          • R Richard Schweitzer says

            Consideration is being given to designating Buffet’s BRK (and my BRKB) a systemicly critical financial enterprise; thus, subject to regulatory “oversight” and constraints under Dodd-Frank.

            You don’t hear “regulate me” from the “tax me” folks.

            Consider the implications that regulation can be more destructive than the power of taxation (which is “the power to destroy).

          • gabe says

            Re: BRK

            does this mean that it will now be considered “Too Big to Fail (TBTF).” That does not seem as if it is destructive of the enterprise – rather that the incentive for “moral hazard” is increased as TBTF’s will get guvmnt bailouts / backing.
            Considering that the Big Banks and Stock Houses, even with the “fines”, are doing quite spectacularly, there does not appear to be much danger in this regulation. could it be because these firms helped draft them?
            Don’t know – but it is interesting how it seems to work out, isn’t it?

    • AnonAt Work says

      “How many tax revolts can you recall? For most US citizens, I suspect the first one to pop to mind would be the Boston Tea Party. It was triggered, as we all recall, by a change in the tax on tea. But was it triggered by an increase in the tax? ”

      Hang on.

      Anyone who wants to look it up will see what happened. Prior to the Tea Act the principle source of Tea in the colonies was smuggled tea which incurred no tax. The Tea Act made it possible to import tea directly to the colonies but had a tax. In addition only consignees had to take the import. The resultant tea was still cheaper than smuggled tea.

      The protesters were driven by a number of factors but the idea of no taxation without representation was certainly amongst them. No doubt smugglers who stood to lose supported the cause but others like Adams, who was not a smuggler, cited the constitution to defend the action.

      So you’ve killed your straw man, but tax is still central in the Boston Tea Party

  5. nobody.really says

    “The term ‘tax relief,’ then, while no doubt metaphorical in that it has certain connotations, seems more or less in accord with, or appropriate to, both human nature and recorded history. One could hardly ask more of a term than that.”

    Now we move from metaphors to Lakoff’s theory of framing. And in short, yes, we can ask more of a term than that.

    How should I respond to the question, “What do I pay for contraceptives under Obamacare?”

    1. They’re free.

    2. You may obtain them without co-pays or deductibles.

    3. Rather than you paying for contraceptives directly, Obamacare causes those costs to be incorporated into the cost of insurance (as subsidized by taxpayers).

    4. Rather than you paying for contraceptives directly, Obamacare causes those costs to be borne by society at large — but offset by the fact that greater access to contraceptives should reduce the social costs associated with unwanted pregnancies, childbirth, and child-rearing.

    5. While you may bear no incremental cost for contraceptives now, society will bear a net cost in a generation due to the fact that we will have a smaller workforce in the future than we might otherwise have had.

    6. You will bear no incremental cost now, and may expect to save money as part of a society with fewer unwanted pregnancies and kids; indeed, given that unwanted kids are more prone to fall into antisocial and criminal behavior, this policy may produce net benefits for you now and indefinitely.

    7. You may bear no incremental cost now, but will bear a future cost of living in a society in which a centralized government is empowered to impose its will on people regardless of those people’s contentious objections, even without evidence of an imminent national emergency. May the contraception work well for you; I’d hate to think of bringing any new children into this anti-constitutional hellscape.

    Each answer provides some information – no incremental charge incurred at the point of sale to acquire contraceptives. But each provides a slightly different frame within which to evaluate the information.

    Clearly, the most conventional, conversational answer is the first: “They’re free.” But this answer suggests an implicit frame: No one ever bears any cost. The second answer avoids this implication, but provides little other context. Each of the later answers provides an explicit frame.

    Anyone who has gone through counseling will likely have discovered the importance of such framing. Strictly from the perspective on content, I might not distinguish between the sentences, “You made me so angry I hit you” and “When you behaved that way, it triggered a response of anger in me, and I hit you.” But the frames differ substantially; one suggests helpless reaction; the other suggests agency and choice. Similar ideas; different frames => different conclusions.

    This is all part of the linguistics field of semantics.

  6. Alex says

    “No one now thinks that aid aids”

    Perhaps you meant to write “no policy analysts.” Voters at large certainly do. Lakoff concerns himself with voters.

  7. dicentra says

    “If it is true that it is pointless for liberals to argue from the evidence, it must also be pointless for conservatives to do likewise. Prejudice is all, reason nothing. There can be no resolution of dispute or disagreement except by dishonest manipulation at best and force at worst.”

    Congratulations. You’ve just summed up all of postmodern thought since Derridà, who posits that language is too slippery to be said to “point to” an objective reality, so there’s nothing left but the battle of narratives.

    Which, yes. The battle will eventually move from the realm of words to that of arms.

  8. says

    Metaphor. Well aren’t we talking about vague or value-laden language – which is what politicians use to try and manipulate people who don’t understand the hundreds of types of logical fallacy?

    The “progressive” thing. Well here we see how Dr Dalrymple hasn’t been spending quite so much time in the UK recently. So much of public debate is conducted on the BBC by (mainly women) talking about how we need a “modern approach”.

    By modern they of course mean things like positive discrimination, “diversity”, gender parity in particular areas but not others, one particular narrow view of culture.

    But just saying that “a modern view is required” obviates the need for rational debate. It’s then just rhetoric and telling a lie a thousand times till it becomes the truth. I suppose this is just the eternal struggle between the intellect and the appeal of soap-box, rabble-rousing politics


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