Metaphors matter because they frame the way we think about an issue–and the solutions we consider. I’ve been noticing recently that the Obama administration knows this too. (Guess they’ve read George Lakoff’s Don’t think of an Elephant!(2004).) A few weeks ago Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the administration would no longer be using the term “War on Terror.” This was followed by an announcement by Gil Kerlikowske, the drug czar, that the administration will no longer refer to seeking solutions for the drug problems in this country as a “War on Drugs.”
When we started referring to addressing the drug problem in this country as a war, we started thinking in terms of military/police solutions. Drug users became the enemy, and it was only logical to construe treating their health problems with compassion as being ‘soft on crime.’ Changing this approach when our attack wasn’t succeeding would have been tantamount to surrendering–which no politician wants to do.
I think our war metaphor had an even subtler, more insidious effect. When we started using battle metaphors, we started thinking terms of winners and losers. And pretty soon there was an us vs. them mentality that became so intrinsic a part of our culture that we forgot that us and them are one and the same.
“We’re not at war with people in this country,” said Kerlikowske.
Hallelujah! Maybe now we have an administration that is really ready to reframe drug use–this time as a health issue. And, thinking of Clinton’s quote, that is ready to rethink its approach to healing (rather than combating) the root causes of the anger that fuels people’s resorting to terrorism.
Wonder what new metaphors the administration will come up with? Keep us posted if you spot any.