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Martin: Policy Metaphors

http://www.vpr.net//audio/programs/56/2013/03/Martin-0310 Metaphors.mp3

(Host) And now we turn to our Sunday Essay. With all the recent talk of the fiscal cliff and the sequester, writer and educator Mike Martin has been thinking about how language, and especially metaphors, shape the way we see things.

(Martin) In Romeo amp; Juliet, Shakespeare's young heroine offers up this famous line, A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. This line is so well known that we often don't even bother to finish it, and the aphorism is so succinct and concrete that its truth would seem to be irrefutable. The only thing is, Juliet's nice phrase is totally wrong.

Since we think with words, and since words have baggage - whether by their symbolism, association, recent past, or even the sound of their syllables - the way we conceive of things is forever subject to the words we use. In politics, this is especially true, and politicians sometimes rival poets in their use of metaphor. During the Cold War, for example, Churchill's Iron Curtain was a terrific metaphor for the Soviet Bloc, but the nickname Star Wars probably didn't help Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative.

Ifyou still agree with Juliet, consider the difference between the words bailout, rescue package, and stimulus. Each can be used to describe the same lump of cash, which will smell sweeter, or not, depending on the word you elect to use. If you're still not convinced, consider whether entitlements for aid to the poor and elderly, or castle doctrine for justifiable homicide are really neutral terms for what they represent.

Many public policy words start out good, but then sour over time. For example, welfare used to mean to be well, but nowadays it's acquired a certain taint, as in welfare queen or corporate welfare. Another example, euthanasia, comes from the Greek for happy death, but the word sounds weird, so eventually it became physician-assisted suicide, and, at present, many prefer the expression death with dignity to describe the same thing.

In education policy debates, polling has consistently found that a majority of Americans oppose vouchers, in other words, for families to use public funds to send their children to private schools. Maybe the word voucher too closely evokes a free car wash coupon or a coffee shop punch card, but for whatever reason, proponents are now using the word scholarship instead. That word sounds happy and important, like winning a big prize, but it doesn't totally make sense when you consider that you shouldn't need one to go to public school. After all, by law, public education is free in the U.S.

Of course, two very scary metaphors in the public discourse right now are fiscal cliff and sequester. Having just missed going over the cliff - picture a sweaty,panting Indiana Jones - we breathed a sigh of relief to find ourselves in sequestration, a word that used to mean to quarantine or to impound. Since this is clearly a bad word, both political parties claim the other invented it... and the spending cuts it represents.

During Watergate, the informant known as Deep Throat told Bob Woodward to follow the money. That's probably still true. But informed citizens will want to follow the policy metaphors too.

Mike Martin is the Director of Learning for South Burlington School District and a Senior Associate with the Rowland Foundation.
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