My blood pressure must be rocketing up.
I know that English is overflowing with everyday metaphors – they are part of its richness, and serve to increase its potential for the transmission of meaning – but I have become more and more irritated as I listen to politicians and pundits who pepper their pronouncements with metaphors which are either exhausted or inappropriate.
Long ago, an English teacher explained to me that a metaphor is a lie which reveals a truth: the soldier was not really a lion in the battle, but to say that he was reveals more vividly the extent of his courage. Fine. But what the teacher did not mention was the capacity of metaphor to help with the construction of false narratives, what we now might call ‘nudging’ or ‘spin’.
When the phrase ‘ramping up’ began to appear in every press conference from Downing Street, I started to wonder why this verb was being chosen instead of the more straightforward ‘increase’ (e.g. for available quantity of protective equipment, number of tests etc). Was it believed to imply a greater urgency, or to provide connotations of a well-oiled machine in action?
I told myself my suspicion of the Westminster government was making me over-cynical about their intentions, but close attention to their utterances gave me more cause for scepticism.
A series of statements seemed to suggest that coping with the virus could be understood in the context of road travel. Actions requiring to be carried out quickly would be done by ‘pressing the accelerator to the floor’. Happenings that had to be eliminated would bring about ‘a foot firmly on the brake’. The ‘journey’ out of the crisis would be made clear in ‘a roadmap’. Weary metaphor was having the effect of obscuring what would actually be done.
But even more worrying was the relentless use of the discourse of wartime to create an analogy between the coronavirus pandemic and WW II, and to encourage the population to accept the government’s presentation of events in the light of this. There was ‘an enemy’ with whom we had to ‘battle’, showing ‘The Dunkirk Spirit’, and marching in ‘lock-step’ to overtake desired outcomes.
It seemed to me that this analogy was not appropriate, given that some medical opinion speaks out against the language of battle and struggle being used in relation to illness. This is not to deny the courage and effort shown by people either during WW II or during the present crisis. It is simply to suggest that they are not the same, and the encouragement by politicians for us to see them as equivalent perhaps disguises political motives, seeking to draw attention away from other issues.
This morning, on BBC radio four’s ‘More or Less‘, statisticians examined the figures given in Downing Street press conferences for numbers of tests carried out. They identified how the figures had been manipulated to allow a claim of ‘100,000 tests in a day’ to be made falsely, by counting tests sent out by post to be counted as tests actually carried out on patients and workers.
The media tell us that trust in the government is a crucial element in bringing back some kind of normality to daily life. I fear that the evidence coming from Westminster does little to inspire my trust in the capability or trustworthiness of the current UK government. I shall continue to keep a watchful eye on their actions . . . and metaphors.