Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
Language has been a significant factor in the coronavirus pandemic. There has been a rapid change in global discourse as a new and resurgent vocabulary of terms has solidified in our speech. It was only in February, that I consciously learnt the difference between an epidemic and a pandemic and now government addresses, online articles and social media posts are so littered with specific epidemiologic terms that I am wrongly convinced I’m an expert in all things COVID-19.
For me, it is the constant use of metaphor throughout the pandemic that has been most striking. It seems every government is eager to communicate the great social significance we are facing, which has encouraged them to roll out war-time analogies in their droves. Metaphors help our politicians communicate complicated and nuanced problems in simplified and familiar ways. The psychologist Allan Paivio’s analysis of metaphors as ‘a solar eclipse’ highlights how ‘they hide the object of study and at the same time reveal some of its most salient and interesting characteristics when viewed through the right telescope’ (Metaphor and thought, 1979).
On his return to No.10 at the end of April, Boris Johnson’s address to the public revolved around a simplistic metaphor in which Britain was the victim of a mugging by COVID-19. This metaphor that has the aim of triggering ideas in the public’s shared and underlying consciousness.
Generally, muggings are unavoidable, and all of the blame falls on the perpetrator. Johnson’s metaphor was an attempt to justify the government’s late response to the crisis and solidifies the idea that this virus came as a surprise. This bears no resemblance to the reality of missed COBRA meetings, unread emails from the EU and delayed enforcement of lockdown.
This is also true with the constant repetition of the war metaphor, which muffles the critical awareness of the public and provides them with an unavoidable and powerful cliché. The natural truth gradually becomes obscured by the symbolic and subjective narrative the metaphor has evoked. By comparing COVID-19 with wartime, a government can communicate current danger alongside a sentiment of hope and resilience. In the UK, the majority of us haven’t experienced the true horrors of war in our home country, but we do have a resounding pre-existing notion of victory in WWII. This then serves as a filter through which the government hopes we interpret their speech.
Similarly, where there is such lack of clarity, a metaphor can be employed by politicians in the pandemic to relieve the tension that is created by the unknown. When a metaphor encapsulates the essence of a situation (as the analogy of war does now) the public are presented with the simplification of an uncertain truth. This helps persuade them to see through the lens the government has put in place.
Is a pandemic better conveyed by being obscured by metaphors, as opposed to clear and empathetic leadership? There has been commentary on how countries with women leaders such as Jacinda Arden and Angela Merkel have managed the crisis compared to their male counterparts.
Perhaps their relative success is due to the fact that they haven’t patronised their citizens with metaphor that mimic logic, but rather set out strategies that, although complicated and lengthy, are clear and coherent.
A Paivio, 1979, Psychological processes in the comprehension of metaphor, in A. Ortony (Ed.), Metaphor and thought (pp. 150-171)
Jeffery Scott Mio (1997) Metaphor and Politics, Metaphor and Symbol, 12:2, 113-133