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Metaphors and the pejorative framing of marginalized groups: implications for social work education.

THE FOLLOWING QUOTE appeared in a 1993 National Review article on the topic of welfare reform:
 Work requirements are catnip for
 social workers; they see counseling
 galore in the educational programs
 and training seminars that Congress
 will construe as meeting the requirements.
 Result: A new sandbox for the
 welfare bureaucracies to romp in.
 Social workers sometimes grumble
 about work requirements, for the sake
 of appearances; secretly they love
 them. (Bethell, 1993, p. 34)

This selection provides an instructive example of the use of metaphors for the purpose of denigrating a group or supporting entrenched pejorative stereotypes. The disquiet or even anger that social workers might feel in reading this selection probably goes beyond simply their visceral response to the dehumanizing metaphors, where social workers are animalized (as cats) and infantilized (as playing in sandboxes). Indeed, such representations carry a depth of meaning that is difficult to fully ascertain except on close analysis. The assumedly selfish intent of social workers--who are presumed to be motivated simply by their base physical urges, as are animals and children--that permeates the paragraph is reinforced by both metaphors. Moreover, additional meaning can be applied to the cat metaphor, because cats are generally viewed as "feminine" animals, and the social work profession is largely composed of women. Objectifying a vast range of professionals as members of the "welfare bureaucracies" similarly serves to cast the entire group in an adverse light. In effect, one does not have to look far to see that much of the negative representational baggage that our profession carries, at least in the eyes of many, is included in this short selection.

Rather than arguing about whether there are any bases in fact that undergird such presentations, we should consider such statements in their proper light, as propagandistic efforts to control the identity of a group of individuals for purposes of power augmentation by an opposition group and to foster their policymaking hegemony. Policy, as I attest in this article, begins with the attempt by stakeholders to control, manage, and wield words, images, and stories to present a desired means of imagining a social problem or community subgroup. Social workers who are unaware of this aspect of policy or who dismiss it as having minor importance put themselves at an extreme disadvantage in their efforts to have measurable positive impacts on the development of social policy within the context of a national landscape that increasingly favors style over substance.

Although a number of social work and related writings have described the potential importance of metaphor analysis within the profession, few of these works touch on policy considerations. Normally, metaphor is discussed as a useful tool for micro- or mezzolevel intervention. Articles by Adams (1997) and Lyddon, Clay, and Sparks (2001), for example, provided examples of metaphors as a means of providing clients with increased awareness of their issues, as an unusual but potentially fruitful means of soliciting difficult information from clients, or, as Lyddon and his coauthors noted, for "introducing new frames of reference" (p. 269) from which clients can consider their issues or goals. Goldstein (1999) described root metaphors as basic truths about the world as social workers see it that informs their interactions with clients, and Duffy (2001) described various means of using metaphors as a form of group work.

In this article, however, I consider metaphors within the policy arena. Following a brief introduction to metaphor use, I describe the importance of metaphors within the context of problem identification and policy development. The principal aspect of metaphor use that is delineated here pertains to the role of such rhetoric in the delineation and identification by others of vulnerable community groups. If an important role of social work professionals is to advocate on behalf of such groups, students in the profession must be taught to identify, analyze, and counter these pejorative metaphor themes (Lens, 2005; O'Brien, 2003b).

Metaphors, Problem Framing, and Social Policy

In his book, Dinosaur in a Haystack, Gould (1995, pp. 443-444) told of a visit to Greece where his view of the Parthenon was briefly obscured by a moving van. His annoyance turned to amusement when he saw that the sign on the van read metaphora. As a vehicle for changing the location of things (meta-) by moving or carrying them (-phor) from one place to another, the van symbolized a metaphor. As Schon (1979) wrote: "[M]etaphorical utterances constitute the carrying over of frames or perspectives from one domain of experience to another" (p. 254).

At their most basic, metaphors include source and target domains. In the case of the frequently used "welfare recipient as parasite" metaphor, for example, the parasite constitutes the source domain, and welfare recipient the target. The primary rationale for the metaphor, then, is to carry over or transfer important though often covert aspects of the source (e.g., dependence, weakness, laziness, low or diminished status, potential to harm the host) onto the target. Metaphors may therefore be viewed as a powerful method of framing, in an easily understood and digested package, a specific ideological position relative to social problems. I address the importance of ideology below.

Those who perceive metaphors as providing simply an interesting or picturesque mode of describing people and issues, with little real impact, fail to understand their true importance. Similarly, as Krohn (1987) noted, "[T]hose who attempt to defend questionable word choices by claiming 'it's only semantics' fail to understand that much more is involved than mere vocalization" (p. 142). Susan Sontag (1990) wrote that "[S]aying a thing is or is like something-it-is-not is a mental operation as old as philosophy and poetry, and the spawning ground of most kinds of understanding, including scientific understanding, and expressiveness" (p. 93). Others have written that metaphors are the means by which societies build "webs of collective meaning" (Harrington, 1995, p. 359) and that the "ultimate way to extend one's perspective to others is through metaphor" (Ellwood, 1995, p. 93).

According to Allbritton (1995), the connection of the source and target domains "through metaphor can affect the way that those domains are understood, causing the perceived similarity of members of the two domains to increase" (p. 36). George Lakoff (1995), a leading contemporary metaphor analyst and scholar, contended that "[a] large proportion of our most commonplace thoughts make use of an extensive, but unconscious, system of metaphorical concepts, that is, concepts from a typically concrete realm of thought that are used to comprehend another, completely different domain" (p. 177).

Metaphors may not only provide meaning about the alleged essence of a thing, person, or group but may also carry overt or underlying messages about the recommended modes of treating or responding to the target (Schon, 1979). For example, the "Jew as bacillus" (a type of bacteria) metaphor that was favored by the Nazis was obviously useful to them because many of the aspects of a bacillus (e.g., potential for harm, spread, and the fear of inconspicuous invasion of the body-nation) served to aptly describe Nazi presumptions about Jews, especially those on their eastern border (e.g., Polish, Russian, and Hungarian Jews; Weindling, 2000). Moreover, if Jews could be perceived as being like a bacillus or virus that threatened anyone with whom they came into contact, their segregation from the rest of the community in ghettos, and later their "disinfection" or mass killing, might be more easily accepted by Germans. As I further describe below, selected policy responses directly correspond to the use of particular metaphoric patterns and framings of social issues and marginalized groups.

In addition to linguistic metaphors, scholars frequently point out the importance of more broad conceptual metaphors. According to Allbritton (1995), a conceptual metaphor relates not just to a metaphorical term or phrase but to a general way of thinking about a particular object or person(s). Continuing the above example, the general perception that arose in Nazi Germany that the Jews were a plague or disease was reinforced not only by linguistic metaphors such as the Jew is "a noxious bacillus" (Hitler, 1971, p. 305) but also by numerous nonmetaphorical arguments and actions, including quarantine measures, questions about the physical health and cleanliness of Jews in eastern territories, a belief that the Jew's essence could be transmitted to non-Jews and could easily contaminate the Aryan gene pool, and the victimization of those who assisted or even communicated with Jews. German citizens realized that, for their own protection if for no other reason, they should treat Jews as if they carried a contagious disease. Even those persons who might have "Jewish blood" but who identified themselves as Aryan were to be avoided in the same way that one might refrain from contact with an asymptomatic carrier of disease.

In addition to providing a general frame against which the target is described, conceptual metaphors, Allbritton (1995) noted, "can influence the way information [about the target] is processed and represented in memory" (p. 38). In other words, additional knowledge about the person, group, or event is considered in light of the existing conceptual metaphor. After a particular conceptual metaphor is widely embraced as an apt way of viewing the target, it may be extremely difficult to replace it with a contrasting mode of framing the issue or group. "Once conditioned to feel disgusted in reference to certain groups of individuals, objects, or practices," De Vos and Suarez-Orozco (1990) said, "people resist later rational attempts to redefine affected groups, practices, or objects as 'nondirty.' Later thought does not overcome continuing feelings of social revulsion and disgust" (p. 131).

The Importance of Metaphors in the Political Arena

Both linguistic and conceptual metaphors are frequently used to frame a social problem or group in a way that is desired by the majority or important stakeholders; therefore, they have a great deal of influence in the policy arena. The significance of such perceptual frames, for example, can easily be gauged by perusing the Congressional Record when a controversial issue or proposed policy is discussed, especially when a degree of social control of a marginalized or stigmatized group is a potential policy solution. Such discussions are often laced with picturesque terminology and potent metaphors to further a desired image of the problem (Annas, 1995; Ellwood, 1995; Lakoff, 1995, 1996; Voss, Kennet, Wiley, & Schooler, 1992). As Lakoff (1996) contended, policymakers who are best able to use linguistic and conceptual metaphors in framing issues are the most apt to garner public support for their positions. Therefore, ideology and stereotyping are closely tied to one another as those individuals, groups, and institutions who foster specific negative stereotypical framings of marginalized groups and social issues do so in large part to advance their own ideological positions and political standing. The metaphors discussed later in this article, therefore, often play a dual role of both supporting these existing negative stereotypes and buttressing the entrenched ideological positions of those who stand to profit, economically, politically or otherwise, through the public embracement of such images.

Another benefit of using metaphors in the policy arena, Schon (1979) added, is that they may vastly simplify very "complex, uncertain, and indeterminate" situations (p. 266). The waging of a war, for example, is normally the end result of an extraordinarily complicated series of events and personal, institutional, resource, and national relationships. When the decision is made, however, those in power need to gain the support of the public. In addition to supplying presumably rational explanations for the decision, a host of metaphors are invoked to vilify the enemy and present the battle as a necessary means of maintaining national pride and ensuring self-preservation (Keen, 1986). A successful rhetorical campaign in support of war, then, isolates those who do not support it as weak impassive, fence-sitting, milquetoast lackeys of the enemy whose treasonous questioning of the decision is putting their own families at risk and, for men at least, their masculinity in question.

Metaphors are an important component of the policy process not only because they can identify the way that important stakeholders believe problems should be viewed and, thus, the proper policy response(s); they also provide a potent means of evoking "strong emotional responses in listeners" (Ellwood, 1995, p. 95). Many metaphors are effective on a subconscious level and, especially when the goal is to denigrate a marginalized group, tie into powerful inherent aversions, such as our fear of bodily invasion (e.g., parasite, germ, virus, poison), safety concerns and the need to act as protectors for our children, latent gender constructs (e.g., for men, strength, action, independence, and for women, beauty, nurturance, bodily integrity, romance), and various manifestations of disgust or repugnance (Douglas, 1984; Miller, 1997).

Metaphors and the Framing of Marginalized Groups

It is apparent that a select collection of pejorative rhetorical themes has been used over time for the purpose of denigrating different marginalized community groups. To quote Wolfensberger (1972), "When we review history and literature, it becomes apparent that regardless of time or place, certain roles are particularly apt to be thrust upon deviant persons. The way in which these roles transcend time, distance and culture is remarkable" (p. 16). Keen (1986) added that "what we will find is that wars come and go, but--strangely, amid changing circumstances--the hostile imagination has a certain standard repertoire of images it uses to dehumanize the enemy" (p. 13). Although Keen was specifically writing about the use of metaphor to support warfare, the same pattern applies to other forms of oppression and social injustice. As Keen demonstrated through extensive examples of war propaganda posters, not only words but pictorial images are frequently used as a method of transmitting metaphorical messages. In warfare, especially, brutal or even bestial images of the enemy may have particular salience. Related forms of mass media, such as movie and television depictions, may present metaphorical images that either support or oppose prevailing stereotypes of devalued groups.

In his book, Dehumanizing the Vulnerable: When Word Games Take Lives, Brennan (1995) described some of the important themes that function as source domains. He wrote, "[I]n many instances, the most significant factor determining how an object will be perceived is not the nature of the object itself, but the words employed to characterize it" (p. 1). Vitriolic language, he added, often punctuated by metaphors, "is invariably an essential component of any large-scale oppression: discrimination, segregation, enslavement, or annihilation" (p. 3). What he termed semantic warfare Brennan added, "does not ordinarily burst upon the scene helter-skelter. It is not an accidental, spontaneous, or chaotic episode, but a deliberate and unremitting phenomenon usually undergirded by fully elaborated systems of concepts, beliefs, and myths" (p. 12).

As a general rule, those who engage in violence or denigration, or advocate social control measures against others, do not want to be perceived as acting inhumanely or without compelling justification. Whenever, therefore, widespread efforts are made to control, disparage, or even exterminate stigmatized persons, various rationales are used to portray the target group as a threat to society, a subhuman entity, or both.

Such efforts are especially prevalent within the context of alarm periods, which are characterized by a passionate display of anger and fear regarding the potential societal impact of presumably disturbing or destructive target groups. Such periods are marked by public policy proposals to restrict the rights of target-group members by removing them from the community by placing them into asylums, ghettos, work or internment camps, prisons, or similar segregated environments; deporting them from the nation altogether; reducing their freedom to assemble, speak, or procreate; increasing government surveillance of their activities; or, in the case of the most flagrant alarm periods, killing them. In such cases, the employment of dehumanizing or threat-inducing rhetoric is particularly necessary, because such actions normally run counter to important cultural beliefs, such as the acceptance of diversity, equal treatment, constitutionally based freedoms, and the right to due process. As Levin (1971) contended, a principal attribute of alarm movements, and the rhetoric that fuels them, is that they "excite deep unconscious wishes and anxieties and tap primitive and infantile ways of thinking" (p. 144).

In some cases, metaphor themes may be copied from one out-group to another. An example of this is the recent movement to frame gay males as a "shadow on the land" (Dannemeyer, 1989). This presentation of gay men as a secretive, powerful, conspiratorial, amoral group that is intent on corrupting youth and bringing down Christian America bears striking resemblance to the metaphoric presentation of communist sympathizers during the McCarthy Era. Certainly the 1950s image of closeted (and easily blackmailed) gay men in sensitive government posts fostered this connection, along with the fact that many of the individuals and groups who were responsible for developing the former image were involved in framing the early antigay rights agenda.

The use of metaphors to foster a pejorative image of the target group also objectifies those who presumably belong to the group by stereotyping them and casting all members into the same worst-case condition. If those accused of sexual molestation are all monsters, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) recipients are all parasites, and persons with severe disabilities are all vegetables, we do not need to attend to the uniqueness of each case but simply view the class as a whole and develop policies designed to that percentage of the group that seems to most clearly fit the prevailing stereotype (Lens, 2005).

Metaphor Themes

The five metaphor themes that are delineated here include the following: (a) the organism metaphor, (b) the animal or subhuman metaphor, (c) the war metaphor or natural catastrophe metaphor, (d) the religious or altruistic metaphor, and (e) the object or medical metaphor. Each of these themes may be used to either dehumanize the group in question, describe them as an imminent threat to society against which we must defend ourselves, or a combination thereof.

There is a great deal of overlap between the various themes, and certain statements or images could include references to multiple metaphors. It may also be true that certain linguistic metaphors that belong to a particular theme may reinforce a different conceptual metaphor theme. For example, if a group of intellectually disabled persons were characterized as "lambs" or "sheep," such animalistic terminology might be invoked for the purpose of supporting the image of such persons as unthreatening and innocent but incapable and highly suggestive individuals who require the guidance of (or control by) professionals, thus fostering the altruistic metaphor.

It should also be noted that some metaphors may have a positive connotation. In the United States, for example, the eagle is seldom used to foster a negative image. As a national symbol, it is proud, strong, vigilant, and beautiful. A nation at war with the United States, however, would be expected to depict the negative attributes of the symbol, with the eagle presented as a ravenous predator intent on swooping down and destroying innocent weaker nations. Another particular example of a positive animal metaphor was the wolf in Nazi Germany. As Sax (2000) noted, the wolf was presented by the Nazis as a fierce predator that had not been weakened through domestication. Hitler so admired the animal that his own nickname was "the wolf," which was particularly apropos because the Jews had long been symbolized by National Socialist writers as sheep. To properly deconstruct the meaning behind the metaphor, then, one must understand the cultural context within which it is used, including the social, economic, or political goals of the speaker(s) or writer(s).

Organism Metaphor

The organism metaphor is a means of describing the collective social body or nation as similar to a human body. The health and well being of the community or national organism require that all of its elements work together toward common goals and nurture the body (Levine, 1995; O'Brien, 1999). More important, as with germs, bacteria, or viruses, target groups are often viewed as invasive or destructive social elements that are capable of infecting the mass of the community. Methods of segregation such as imprisonment, institutionalization, and the mandated use of separate facilities, therefore, are often presented as community protection measures, similar to other means of protecting public health.

Concerns regarding contagion can be clearly seen, for example, in some of the Jim Crow laws. In testimony before Congress during deliberations on the Civil Rights Act, Attorney General Robert Kennedy noted that in Greenwood, South Carolina, "the city code makes it unlawful for any person operating a cafe, restaurant, or drinking fountain to serve colored people and white people with the same dishes and glasses" ("Civil Rights--Public Accommodations," 1963, p. 20). A similar fear led to the segregation of blood by race when transfusions were first developed (Congressional Record, 1942).

As noted above, an important use of the organism metaphor for social work purposes is the employment of parasitic terminology, especially to describe persons receiving welfare. Brennen (1995), Keen (1986), Levin (1971), Lowenthal and Guterman (1970), and others have all noted that the targets of dehumanizing rhetoric are often compared with particularly loathsome and repulsive animals, such as parasites, lice, termites, bugs, and other vermin. Such animals are so inconsequential from a physical standpoint that their extermination carries with it no guilt from those doing the killing, and, on the other hand, they can be so destructive or bothersome that their eradication is justified as being not only appropriate but indeed necessary for purposes of community health. These portrayals symbolize waste and degeneration, the eating away of that which is healthy and good. As Keen (1986) wrote, "The lower down in the animal phyla the images descend, the greater sanction is given to the soldier [or social control agent] to become a mere exterminator of pests" (p. 61). Such metaphors grade over into medical metaphors as the organisms become ever smaller and inconsequential, becoming, in the end, germs, viruses, and cancer cells.

As Lowenthal and Guterman (1970) noted, these contagion (p. 57) metaphors strike a cord with the public because bodily invasion ties into some of our deepest fears and aversions. For example, the image of illegal immigrants that has been supported by restriction supporters, both presently and in the past, frequently is permeated by the underlying belief that the oversight and management of national borders are akin to controlling those external elements that are taken into our own bodies. During the immigration restriction debate in the 1st quarter of the 20th century, restrictionist writings were peppered with linguistic metaphors related to the nation ingesting and digesting undesirable immigrants and the possible problems that these individuals would cause to the national body if they were not rigidly inspected prior to "ingestion" (O'Brien, 2003a).

Animal Metaphor

Animalistic terminology, descriptions, or conceptual images are frequently used to highlight negative stereotyped characteristics of target-group members. As Zuckier (1996) noted, in extreme cases propagandists may even question where the boundary line that demarcates humans from nonhuman animals may be located, and whether target groups fall within or outside this line. Indeed, the term marginalized itself relates to this perception that group members might not be considered to be full-fledged members of the human community. Social movements often include elements of a scale of humanity, whereupon various gradations of humans can be gauged, based on racial, personal, behavioral, or other traits. Thus, even if all members of the species are accepted as human beings, some may be denied certain rights or opportunities based on their placement on such a scale (Ritvo, 1995).

This gradated view of the species explains in part why it is frequently the ape or monkey that is used as a metaphor for the target group (Noel, 1994). Numerous writings that supported segregation during the early part of the 20th century (as well as slavery before this) drew on racial anthropological thinking that placed African Americans as a missing link between "normal" humans and simians (Gould, 1981), or simply as beasts (Carroll, 1900). Because, for many writers, it is the intellect that places humans above other animals, the taxonomic placement of persons with intellectual disability and mental illness has frequently been a source of contention. Even today, some animal rights literature seems to diminish the status of cognitively disabled persons (whether or not this is their intent) by comparing their intellectual capacity to that of nonhumans (O'Brien, 2003b). "Lower" races and classes have also frequently been portrayed in chauvinistic writings as instinctual beings that required control by external authorities (Levin, 1971), and thus the animal metaphor often neatly coexists with the altruism metaphor.

Those animals that are chosen to represent target groups are frequently either harmful (snakes, wolves, octopi), insignificant (ants, roaches), or both (parasites, rats, and termites). Often the stereotyped characteristic of the group that is the basis for their control portends the use of a specific animal. During the immigration restriction movement (1900-1925), the public was repeatedly warned that illegal immigrants, breeding like rabbits, threatened to take over the nation if their numbers were not controlled (O'Brien, 2003a). Among a host of pejorative metaphors, Nazi thinking portrayed Jews as infectious rats or poisonous snakes that cowardly hid in the dark and threatened to spread disease and death among the population (Keen, 1986). According to Sidel (2000), during the debate over welfare reform, a Florida legislator compared welfare recipients to animals who had become dependent on the aid of people and could no longer fend for themselves. In conservative literature, the "welfare mother" has frequently been compared with a particularly disgusting, greedy animal, the "brood sow" (Placek & Hendershot, 1974; p. 658).

Small animals may especially be used as providing an analogous image to the marginalized group, because such animals are themselves viewed in an objectivist light. In other words, many of those who might oppose animal testing on dogs or monkeys might be more apt to allow it on mice, because the former are not only more insignificant in regard to size but also are considered to be less individualistic, or, to reiterate a point made above, seem to function at a lower intellectual level and thus be less endowed with a spiritual nature. Emotional and aesthetic attributes (e.g., perceived empathy to other members of the species, attention to one's young, curiosity, cuteness, sliminess, cleanliness, cruel nature) may also be imposed on particular animals, making them more likely to be used as a point of comparison in specific situations (Blatt, 1970, p. 161).

War and Natural Catastrophe Metaphors

The war metaphor includes the extensive use of military rhetoric or a general framing of the group in question as an imminent threat to the nation, whose control is warranted by the need to protect the community. Although measures of control or restriction are generally undesirable, propagandists note that at times they are necessary because of the nature of the threat. The war metaphor is also a means of highlighting the contention that, although many problems and issues face the country, a particular concern is preeminent and must be faced immediately and forcefully. Inherent in the war metaphor are messages of not only strength but protection. Those invoking the war metaphor position themselves as resolute protectors of the community. Those who support legislative proposals that limit gay rights, for example, are quick to position themselves as defenders of the American family and way of life.

Geographic boundaries and related themes (the incursion of a group into new territory; the increase over time in space provided for ghettoes, reservations, or other forms of segregated living; territorial battles) are frequently an important aspect of the war metaphor. A series of time-lapse maps, for example, that purports to show the disconcerting increase in the presence of a minority group within a neighborhood or region (usually symbolized by foreboding black coloring, which is especially likely to touch a cord with readers when it is an increase in the African American population), is one example of this. The target group is presented as being much like a foreign enemy expanding its foothold within the nation, or, to use the organism metaphor, an encroaching virus or disease threatening the healthy or pure areas of the community.

Similar to the war metaphor, the natural catastrophe metaphor portrays the group in question as analogous to a potentially cataclysmic act of nature, such as a flood, fire, tornado, earthquake, or, especially when persons of Asian descent are the targets of opposition, a tsunami. The most conspicuous example of this is the extensive use of "flood" rhetoric in describing immigrants, both past and present. One supporter of immigration control argued, for example, that if strict limitations were not enforced, "the flood gates will be down and a turgid sea of aliens will inundate our seaports" ("Guarding the Gates Against Undesirables," 1924, p. 401). As with most other uses of the natural catastrophe metaphor, the flood image is appropriated in part because it aptly symbolizes the issue at hand, as immigrants generally travel over the water (O'Brien, 2003a).

War terminology is often used to describe the battle that occurs between humans' natural (immune system) or artificial (drugs, surgery) bodily defenses and invading diseases, and, thus, such metaphors have often been used with the organism metaphor. In fact, as with animalistic metaphors, no clear boundary exists between the two broad types. Certainly the most obvious example of this was the denigration of Jews in Nazi Germany. The German propaganda machine not only frequently described Jews as both violent criminals or enemy forces and invading parasites or bacteria but often used such metaphors together (Keen, 1986).

War metaphors predicate a harsh, draconian approach to the identified problem, just as the "war on drugs" favors spending on imprisonment and interdiction over education and treatment. If those who use and sell illegal drugs are perceived as enemy combatants, a treatment approach would hardly be an appropriate policy solution (Ellwood, 1995). The war metaphor also implies that a zero-sum approach to a particular social problem or issue is accepted as a reasonable means of viewing the situation. In other words, it separates various human factions into classes fighting over scarce resources, with no possibility of a middle ground. Voters are informed that any policies that are directed to help the group in question will harm themselves, as a simplistic redistribution schema is invoked.

Frequently, especially when the group, because of its presumed laziness, selfishness, inherent incompetence, or other related reasons, is viewed as unworthy of aid, these zerosum arguments are couched in Malthusian or social Darwinistic language. If the target group is assisted in its efforts to survive, propagandists note, this not only reinforces their indolence or incompetence but also fosters an untenable birth differential between the nation's "earners" and "users" (Sidel, 2000). The threat that these groups pose to the rest of society, the argument continues, especially by their increasing numbers, is not unlike the threat posed by a foreign enemy attempting to take over the nation. Propagandists note, however, that the marginalized group does not rely on brute force but the march of time and their ability to reproduce in large numbers, to co-opt the democratic process.

Religious and Altruistic Metaphors

The religious metaphor infuses religious rhetoric or symbolism within arguments for social control. Here, the group in question is portrayed as evil, immoral, or detrimental to the spiritual foundations of the community. Those supporting the movement against the target group often work hard to demonstrate that their goals or methods are in keeping with mainstream religious or moral precepts, and they may even attempt to exploit religious symbols or practices to support the movement or use existing religious networks to disseminate propaganda. Charles Carroll (1900), for example, was not the only segregationist writer to use the Bible to provide evidence that African Americans should be classified as subhuman entities.

In those societies where freedom of religion is included within the spectrum of individual rights, overt discrimination against those belonging to minority religions is generally deemed to be inappropriate. Even in nations that laud religious freedom, however, persecution of those who are framed as operating outside normative religious boundaries may be acceptable and, in some cases, even presented as a duty. This is especially likely if those belonging to a minority religion, or who profess to be atheists or agnostics, can be perceived as challenging the precepts of the majority religion, and especially if, as was the case with the various antiCommunist movements in the United States, they can be presented as engaging in a conspiracy to damage or destroy the country.

Even if target-group members are not denigrated on overtly religious grounds, such as belonging to a minority religion, religious elements such as immorality or sinfulness often provide a foundation for their depreciation. Groups may be stereotyped as being intemperate, sexually promiscuous, unfettered by the moral code of the community, or, as is the case with an important current framing of Muslims in the United States, potential terrorists. Characteristic of their sexual immorality, moreover, group members are frequently said to engage in miscegenation and other "unnatural" sexual behaviors. Writings that supported the segregation of African Americans, as well as the limitation of Chinese and Japanese immigration, frequently invoked the fear that the men of these races would mate with White women. Fears of miscegenation and sexual immorality, especially the rape of Aryan women and girls by Jews, were also predominant in German anti-Semitic propaganda, both prior to and during the Nazi era.

In many cases, control of an out-group by the group in power, or a limitation of the rights provided to the former, may be rationalized through the altruistic metaphor, which is primarily characterized by paternalistic rhetoric and the contention that those who are supporting oppressive policies are acting on behalf of the target group. The controlling group frames itself as a loving but firm parent and those who are controlled as a child requiring guidance and supervision. Certainly this metaphor was very clear historically in rationalizing imperialism, as well as slavery and other such actions. In regard to the former example, propagandists noted that developing nations were primitivistic groups who were unable to either access or wisely use the resources within their territories. They presumably did not have the capacity for self-government, were unable to plan for the future, and had the intellectual capacity of children, at least as compared with Anglo Saxon standards.

A central component of the paternalistic metaphor is the contention that those who oppress are acting in the best interest of their victims, but that the latter are either too unintelligent or self-absorbed to understand this. Subjugation, Noel (1994) wrote, is viewed from this perspective as a means of protection:
 (f)ar from finding satisfaction in the
 power he holds over the oppressed,
 the dominator feels it to be a burden,
 an additional responsibility weighing
 on his shoulders. He therefore sees the
 control he exercises as a duty more
 than a privilege. (p. 125)

Object or Medical Metaphor

Within the context of the object metaphor, impersonal items are used to highlight the presumed (usually negative) characteristics of the target group. The value of group members is not a given, but may be based on their ability to perform specific roles, such as breeder, worker, or soldier. They may be viewed as interchangeable objects with little individual personality, and the target classification--a person with disability, Communist sympathizer, Japanese, Jew--may be presented by those in power as their "master status," or principle identifying attribute. These primary identifiers, moreover, are often said to be largely unalterable, either through environmental factors or one's own efforts to change. During Congressional hearings on Japanese internment, for example, one legislator supported interning not only recent Japanese immigrants but all Japanese, regardless of their length of residency in the country (which would be the eventual policy). He contended that "we cannot trust them.... Once a Jap always a Jap. You cannot change him. You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's ear" (Congressional Record, 1942, p. 1682).

A central aspect, then, of the object metaphor relates to individual and group identity and brings up a host of issues pertaining to "other-imposed" identities. According to Brennan (1995), "[I]n this process of objectification people are reduced to the level of insignificant matter that can be used, moved, manipulated, and disposed of with impunity" (p. 13). They become, in other words, the property or pawns of those who direct the labeling process. Because the ability to exert control and even ownership are both closely related to the capacity to identify, label, or diagnose the other, the desire to break away from this identification by others has been a primary factor in virtually all human rights movements. It is important to note that Friere (1970) stated, in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, that this objectification of the controlled group necessitated objectification of the identifiers themselves, whose "higher" lot in life becomes their own master status, regulating their social behavior and value orientation and, thus, limiting their own choices and capabilities.

At times, devalued individuals and groups may be objectified by being compared with poorly made or substandard products. Some of those who supported expanding the inspection of immigrants during the early decades of the 20th century, for example, viewed these physical and mental examinations as a form of quality control similar to what one might create in an automobile factory (Kraut, 1994, p. 63). A pervasive view of immigrants at the time was that they were interchangeable tools of industry. Welcomed when low-wage work was needed for projects such as the railroads, their value became marginal when such projects were completed, and they were seen as little more than excess inventory. Similarly, especially in a disposable culture such as the United States, persons who are elderly may also be devalued as being past their prime, run down, or obsolete. Because productivity is such an important value in our culture, persons who are perceived as being nonproductive are at risk of having their status diminished.

The object metaphor closely relates to the medical metaphor, wherein diagnosis of the individual leads to a "condition" that becomes, at least in the eyes of members of the medical profession, the central identifier of the person. As Foucault (1965), Szasz (1970), Goffman (1961), and others have described in their writings, a core element of the object metaphor as it plays itself out in medicine or psychiatry is the power or status relationship between the physician/psychiatrist and the patient, a relationship that is substantively reinforced by the diagnostic expertise that is granted to medical professionals. As these authors noted, "good" patients are in large part identified as those who, without complaining, take on their role of the passive, unquestioning, grateful patient, thus covertly agreeing to their own objectification.

Not only are individuals and presumably homogeneous groups objectified but so too may be those stigmatized places where they reside. Asylums and institutions, ghettoes, reservations, ethnic enclaves, nursing homes, and other spatial or geographic spaces may be subject to objectification. As Foucault (1965) noted, the use of abandoned leprosariums as insane asylums seemed appropriate in large part because these spaces themselves had become so stigmatized that they could only appropriately serve another stigmatized class of persons.

Implications for Social Work Education

An awareness of both linguistic and conceptual metaphors is a potentially important aspect of numerous social work education areas. They may, for example, be used in individual or group practice courses as a creative form of gathering client information or explaining or reframing an individual's view of a problem or issue. Related to practice at all levels, metaphors may play an important role in how practitioners perceive various families, work groups, neighborhoods, and communities and, thus, how we respond to them through intervention or advocacy. Metaphors may be an intriguing area of content analysis in research courses, especially related to the images that are put forth related to the profession, specific marginalized groups, or the public perception of widespread social problems. In human behavior courses, metaphors might be useful for conceptualizing human development and the differing views of "nonnormative" development.

Although metaphor awareness may play a crucial role in numerous curriculum areas, its use in policy courses is especially crucial and timely. In preparing social work students to engage in policy advocacy, it is essential that they are aware of how vulnerable populations are framed through the use of metaphors. The ability to effectively deconstruct pejorative metaphors is an important precursor to gaining an understanding of the latent rationales that support social control and cultural prejudices and, thus, in developing humane public policy options. In fact, it would be difficult to understand how one could effectively engage in policy advocacy without attending to the importance of metaphors. As noted above, politicians themselves point to the central role of rhetoric within the political arena through their widespread use of metaphors. As Lens (2005) wrote, "Whether translating research findings for public consumption or arguing for a policy position that reflects social work values, social workers need a range of rhetorical skills so that our voices can be heard and heeded" (p. 231).

Educators in social policy should find ways to incorporate metaphor components within their syllabi and could even require students to include sections in policy papers on the perceptual images and media and stakeholder framings of specific client groups. Students need to understand that specific policies are developed with an image of the client or client group in mind. Different policies, even related to the same social problem, relate largely to differing images of the recipient class. As alluded to above, denigrating stereotypes often have an extremely long "shelf life" because the metaphors that are intrinsically related to those stereotypes become cultural images. Moreover, as noted above, these images are often transplanted from one out-group to another across time.

As the importance and science of political rhetoric, including metaphors, have evolved, the image-making industry has boomed. This has, it should be mentioned, been pushed along by the vast expansion of new modes of information, especially over the Internet (e.g., blogs and Web sites such as YouTube). Because of the need to set forth the image that what they do is something other than manipulation of the public, these individuals normally present themselves in a more acceptable guise. A plethora of media consultants, legislative aides, think-tank staff, industrial and corporate public relations specialists, and other individuals spend a great deal of time and effort attempting to fashion and spread their preferred vision of the political landscape in ways that are both easily digestible for the general public and highly profitable for their employers or careers. Because policy analysis is impossible without considering important stakeholder groups, social work students need to see these individuals as strategic players in the political arena. It may do little good for social workers to become heavily involved further down the policy road (e.g., attempting to assist with the development, implementation, evaluation, and revision of policies) if the basic framing of issues and groups is left to others, because this framing forms the foundation onto which a policy structure is created.

Instructors in social work policy courses could encourage their students to access primary source material related to historical alarm periods or contemporary social or economic injustice issues. Rather than reading secondary analysis of such events, students might get a much better feel for why rationales for control were widely embraced from primary documents. Within the context of primary literature, especially those books, articles, and other sources of information that support social control policies, students should be encouraged to locate and consider the role that specific dehumanizing metaphors have played in fostering public fear and/or anger against the group in question.

In addition, instructors might use visual (e.g., television shows and movies, Web-based sources, documentaries, political commercials) means of information dispersal as a method of analyzing denigrating linguistic and conceptual metaphors. Students should be challenged not only to be able to identify these metaphors but to understand the reason behind such images, whether they support or counter existing stereotypes of the population, whether there is a factual basis for the depictions, what form of policy might reasonably be expected to result from such images, and which stakeholder groups might gain from those policies.

Accepted: 8/07


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Gerald V. O'Brien

Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville

Gerald V. O'Brien is an associate professor at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville.

The author would like to acknowledge Kathleen Tunney and Jean O'Brien for their helpful comments on a previous draft of this article.

Address correspondence to Gerald V. O'Brien, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Department of Social Work, P.O. Box 1450, Edwardsville, 62026-1450; e-mail:
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Author:O'Brien, Gerald V.
Publication:Journal of Social Work Education
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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