Chuka and Boris Should Mind Their Language a Misused Metaphor Can Come Back to Haunt You

The Evening Standard (London, England), September 10, 2018 | Go to article overview

Chuka and Boris Should Mind Their Language a Misused Metaphor Can Come Back to Haunt You


CHUKA Umunna has been copping furious flak from the Corbynite Left for asking the leader to "call off the dogs"; Boris Johnson has been called "disgusting" by fellow Tories for likening the Prime Minister's Brexit plan to a "suicide vest" around the British constitution. So metaphor and simile those standbys of our GCSE English preparation are suddenly at the heart of the most bitter civil wars in both the Right and Left of British politics? It shouldn't be that much of a surprise: rhetoric is at the centre of politics and metaphor is at the centre of rhetoric. History turns on metaphors.

I remember, some years ago, being in a newspaper leader conference discussing the assassination of Israel's then minister for tourism. The newspaper I then worked for was on the Right, and strongly pro-Israel, and the plan was to write nice things about the man. I raised a wavering objection: could we really give three cheers to a man who was on record as saying Palestinians living illegally in Israel needed dealing with "in the same way you get rid of lice"? My then editor thought this was merely a colourful way of expressing a tricky problem rather than anything more sinister. I disagreed then and I disagree now.

Metaphor in political rhetoric really, really matters. And it can, indisputably, be used to insult and dehumanise. Think of the tentacular grip of the Jewish octopus in cartoons from Der Sturmer. Or of the characterisation of Tutsi people as "cockroaches" ahead of the Rwandan genocide (one of the reasons I felt especially uncomfortable with those "lice"). Anti-immigrant rhetoric that talks of being "swamped" or "infested" or "overrun" steers, as most of us I think recognise, irresponsibly in this direction. …

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