We know from neuroscience that most thought is unconscious, carried out by neural circuitry. In Metaphors We Live By, Mark Johnson and I showed that much of that unconscious thought is metaphorical, and further, that we often live our lives according to those metaphors.
So says George Lakoff, neuroscientist and linguist. Mr. Lakoff recently posted an article in which he presents his take on the nature and implications of a primary metaphor driving the person currently occupying the oval office. Mr. Lakoff’s central premise is that POTUS 2017 operates according to the assumption “the president is the nation”. The “meaning” of the phrase itself, out of context, presents very little significance. However, the true meaning of such a metaphor only appears in the expressed attitudes and behaviors that ensue from it. Assuming the Lakoff depiction is accurate, an important question arises: how might a person who suddenly finds himself in the most power office in the world behave as a result of the validation offered by the new found title “President of the United States”?
The article describes an interesting psychological configuration as it plays out in specific desires, decisions, and communications delivered through the current White House occupant’s tweets. Perhaps what is most interesting is not what Mr. Lakoff has to say about POTUS 2017, but how the psychological structure of what he is proposing might (and probably is) operative in ourselves. How much does self-identification by this person in the chief executive’s seat parallel our own understanding of ourselves? On a deeper level, to what degree does our reaction to the current person posing as the 45th president reflect our own attitudes toward the world in general rather than toward any specific person? Similarly, what might be the metaphor operating in each of us as we assess the various reported events presented by the news media? When we react in defense of the office of this loser president, for instance, to what degree are we actually reacting to feelings about ourselves, our own fears and our own need for self-protection? Similarly, when we reject actions and statements relative to the current regime, to what degree are we not reacting to any particular person, but rather, to our own sense of indignation and sense of violation regarding the general state of affairs in the United States?
When Mr. Lakoff says something like “We need to reveal the existence of the metaphor”, we should hear the statement not so much as a discovery of something unknown to us, but as a paradigmatic manner in which we all encode and perpetuate what we believe to be real. We need to identify our own metaphors. What do you believe to be the central metaphor driving your life? When you say “I am a <fill in the blank>, what are you actually attempting to communicate to the world, and, more importantly, to yourself? If your description of <fill in the blank> is accurate, what assumptions do you habitually make because of this, your, particular metaphor? Are you a beacon of what a person should be (by your own standards)? How do you know your guiding metaphor actually is what you think it is?
Suggestion: Read through the Lakoff article focusing on your life situation and the ways in which your behavior and attitudes “play out”. We too often relate to depictions of people and current events as if we are watching a movie, as if the world comes to us as entertainment. Most important, we too often allow these depictions to remain in the realm of “other”, as if they are not about us. We allow the stories to be about them, written by them, presented by someone else. Doing so, we can easily judge—either the person or situation that forms the focus of the presentation or the author or medium presenting the ideas. In this case, forget POTUS 2017. Reality–for each of us individually and collectively–is so much larger than such a person. Forget George Lakoff. You might accept or reject his ideas. But what about you? What about us?