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Obama Reframes Syria: Metaphor and War Revisited

By       Message George Lakoff     Permalink
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Here is their list as it might apply to Syria:

  • Optimism bias: John Kerry speaks very optimistically about how a strike will necessarily deter Assad, send a message to would-be gassers, and maintain America's standing in the world.
  • The fundamental attribution error (assigning actions to inherent essences, rather than external reasons): there are bad people out there who want to harm us -- just because the want to.
  • The illusion of control: We can keep the military action limited. There will be no boots on the ground.
  • Reactive devaluation: Those against the military strike are unrealistic.
  • Risk aversion: We cannot risk not acting. We should just punish Assad and do no more. We don't want to go to war.
  • The salient exemplar effect (with striking cases people tend to overestimate probability): Look at the dead gassed children and think of that happening to your children. We must stop this now.

These are real forms of thought and they occur naturally.

Kahneman  proposes that we can avoid the effect of unconscious, fast, nonlogical thought by using slow, conscious, logical System 2 thinking (this is the classical view of conscious rationality). But brain and  cognitive science research suggests otherwise. Linear, conscious reasoning makes use of massively parallel unconscious reasoning that makes use of conceptual frames, metaphors, and narratives -- and the forms of thought just described above. In the case of Iraq, the policy-makers Kahneman and Renshon correctly cite were conscious, slow-thinking policy-makers using logic and statistics -- and in doing so used unconscious System 1 thinking.

No matter how slow or conscious or logically you think about Syria, you will still use metaphors and scenarios of the sort discussed above. They are inevitable in a situation like Syria.

It is vital that we be made aware of all this. Metaphorical and scenario-based thinking is not necessarily false. Conceptual metaphors and scenarios have real inferences that may or may not fit the world. America will act, or act by not acting. There will be real-world consequences in either case. We need to keep track of the metaphors and scenarios that lead to those consequences.

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George Lakoff is Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, where he has taught since 1972. He previously taught at Harvard (1965-69) and the (more...)

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