Metaphor Man: Comments on David Brooks’ metaphor column

by Michael Erard on April 15, 2011 · 4 comments

in Metaphor Man

New York Times columnist David Brooks recently promoted the importance of metaphor in his April 11th column. “Metaphors are not rhetorical frills at the edge of how we think,” Brooks wrote, “They are at the very heart of it.”

To anyone who has learned and uses Strategic Frame Analysis and who has come to share our enthusiasm for metaphors and simplifying models, Brooks’ praise for metaphors should sound familiar. We believe that metaphors aren’t mere icing on the communications cake; they help shape everything about the cake.

“Metaphors help compensate for our natural weaknesses,” Brooks wrote. “Most of us are not very good at thinking about abstractions or spiritual states, so we rely on concrete or spatial metaphors to (imperfectly) do the job. A lifetime is pictured as a journey across a landscape. A person who is sad is down in the dumps, while a happy fellow is riding high.”

He continued: “Most of us are not good at understanding new things, so we grasp them imperfectly by relating them metaphorically to things that already exist. That’s a ‘desktop’ on your computer screen.”

Experienced framers could add this: Much of the public thinks and reasons about social issues using metaphors that make the best solutions to those problems invisible, unthinkable. So we develop new metaphors to give people new tools to reason with, new pieces of meaning they can add to cultural understandings that they already possess, all of which will eventually help them to perceive themselves as political actors in it in new ways.

How does FrameWorks go about developing the metaphors at the heart of the simplifying models that we write so much about? You could compare our work to ethnobotanists, people who scour the wilds of the earth for potent but undiscovered pharmaceutical compounds, then bring those compounds back to the laboratory to see how effective and safe they’d be fighting certain diseases and conditions. Likewise, we scour interviews with dozens of people (experts, members of the lay public, advocates, and others) for metaphors “in the wild,” then put these bits of meaning through rigorous tests that speed up their evolution and give us a clear picture of what will (and won’t) work in communications venues. We don’t want to release a metaphor into public discourse without knowing exactly how people use it and how it works.

In some coming posts, I’ll sketch some of the issues that we’re currently dealing with in this development process.