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  • Eric Chambers

THE FUTURE IS GONNA SUCK: Metaphor and Covid-19 in the New York Times


(originally posted on April 27, 2020) As I've been teaching (for the first time!) a semantics class this semester, I've been wanting to give my students an overview of the interplay between language and meaning that goes beyond syntactic structures and verb tenses in English. One of the topics that I've focused on in recent weeks is the ways in which metaphor plays an important role in how it is we view the world. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson's influential book, which essentially laid the foundation for relationships between language and metaphor, argued that metaphorical relationships are so prevalent in language that we perceive everything by comparing our experiences and feelings with those events to others. In essence, we create frameworks through which we perceive all sorts of feelings, emotions, and experiences. One of their more well-known metaphorical extensions is ARGUMENT IS WAR, and they give the following examples: Your claims are indefensible. He attacked every weak point in my argument. His criticisms were right on target. I demolished his argument. I've never won an argument with him. You disagree? OK, shoot! (Metaphors We Live By, page 4) When we talk about arguing, we are often using language that we associate with war: we point out other peoples' weaknesses, we claim that we demolish others' indefensible arguments, and the like. Of course, this isn't the only way that we talk about arguing, but it is a dominant one, and it helps structure the fact that we think about arguing primarily as battles. Lakoff and Johnson, in fact, take this one step further: they claim that any feeling that we have, no matter if it's love or hatred or fear, is understood primarily through metaphorical relationships (LOVE IS A COSMIC FORCE or HATRED IS A DISEASE, for example). Metaphors fundamentally structure how we think about the world, and how we relate experiences to each other. I've been thinking a lot about this argument, especially in terms of the pandemic we're all currently experiencing. This is a tough time to be an educator for a lot of reasons, but I'm finding that one particularly difficult challenge has been how to deal with students who are so...well, depressed. A lot of students are afraid of the future: for them, THE FUTURE WILL BE BETTER is not a metaphor that they feel an affinity with. I wanted to explore this a little idea a little bit, and I wanted to see exactly how the future is being talked about, in this instant, right now. So, I decided to do what I think I do best: gather data and analyze it. I took headlines from the New York Times' homepage from a random sampling of dates from the past two weeks or so, and compiled them in a database. You know, often times a good idea for a research project starts with a simple observation, but when you expand that observation into a larger data set, you notice other things. So I decided to take a look at two things: first, I wanted to see how these headlines reference the future, and if there is some sort of overarching metaphorical structure that they can be put into (you can probably guess the results, but hey, a researcher's work is never done!). But as I was looking through the data set I was also interested in how coronavirus itself was being talked about: how people are talking something that is causing so much change in the world right now. To talk about that data, I want to borrow a little from Halliday's Systemic-Functional Grammar to go slightly more in-depth as to how coronavirus is being spoke about. So when I gathered the data, I ended up with 165 headlines that, understandably, dealt with coronavirus in one way or another (and yes, all the usual caveats apply...this is only one newspaper with a particular political bent, how to properly define a headline, blah blah blah). I first focused on those headlines that talked about future events in some shape or form (it's actually more difficult than at first glance to decide what constitutes a 'future' event: I used the presence of modal will as a guide, but also expanded my criteria to include those events that may have started but have future ramifications). Doing so got me the following 29 headlines, where I will highlight some important keywords: White House and Democrats Near Deal on Aid for Small Businesses What Trump's Plan to Reopen America Gets Right, and Wrong Trump Is Asking Us to Play Russian Roulette With Our Lives The U.N. warns of the pandemic's 'potentially catastrophic' impact on the world's children. The small-business loan program, chaotic from the start, is getting a second round. The pandemic offers Taiwan a chance to push back against China. The Long, Hard Road Ahead to Revive New York City's Economy The known global death toll has topped 200,000. Now, many countries are plotting their reopening. The City Council introduces a broad relief package Stop Dawdling. People Need Money. Some NYC lawmakers want to close 75 miles of streets to cars. Pelosi Says House Could Soon Allow Remote Voting NYC will close at least 40 miles of streets to create open space. No one knows when business travel will return, but one thing is certain: It will be changed. More States Ease Restrictions as Pressure to Reopen Grows How Joe Biden Can Own Health Care Germany cautiously restarts its economy, allowing small shops to open. For Houston, a One-Two Punch: ‘It’s Going to Be Devastating’ Does Gavin Newsom Have the Grit to Take On the Coronavirus? Boris Johnson gives few clues about plans to ease lockdown measures. A picture of reopenings in New York and New Jersey comes into focus. Researchers have a gloomy prediction for how much poverty could rise Putin postpones a demonstration of Russian pride and military might. Michael Che of 'S.N.L. wants to pay rent for 160 NYC families Japan declares a nationwide state of emergency, widening earlier measures. Cuomo extended the shutdown in New York to May 15 Britain extends its lockdown by three weeks. "They're your projections, Mr. President." Cuomo and Trump trade jabs 'The Worst-Case Scenario': New York's Subway Faces its Biggest Crisis Do you see the pattern that is emerging? THE FUTURE IS UNCERTAIN. THE FUTURE WILL BE BAD. THE FUTURE WILL SUCK. THE FUTURE ALREADY SUCKS. Pick one of those: I think they are all pretty on-point for how the New York Times is portraying the future. Predictions are gloomy. We're being asked to play Russian roulette with our lives. It's going to be devastating; the worst-case scenario. Doom. Nothing but doom. Now I'm not going to argue that the virus, and the lockdown/social distancing/shelter-in-place provisions billions of people are currently enduring, has not had immense negative repercussions for so many people. That's stupid and denialist. But: I want you all to think about something else. We don't know the future. There are many different ways to talk about the future. Things might be bad...but maybe we can do things now to make them better. The economy may suffer, but are there things we can do now to mitigate the potential consequences? I ask these questions not to claim that things 'aren't as bad as people make them out to be,' or anything stupid like that. But I do offer this: if people are consistently being told that things will be bad, that THE FUTURE WILL BE AWFUL, then we have to think about what purposes those kinds of messages send, and why alternatives are not being discussed. This is the critical discourse analyst in me coming out, but...just think about it. What does this tell us about what we value, and why we value (or should value) it? What might this say, for example, about societal institutions (such as the New York Times) that predict 'gloomy' forecasts or that the worst is yet to come? A critical discourse analyst would say that we can't look at the language use in a particular setting or system without thinking about who's saying it, and (especially if they are in a position of power) why they might be saying it. I don't offer any answers here, just thoughts. ---- I also want to talk about how the New York Times actually talks about the virus itself. Taking the same data set above, I isolated all of those instances in which the words 'coronavirus,' 'virus,' and 'covid-19' were present in the headline. Out of the 165 headlines, 35 of them had one of these three words. I wanted to take a look at what the virus was 'doing' in these headlines: was it a nominal, was it in an adjectival phrase (being used to describe something), was it in a prepositional phrase, or was it doing something else? If it was a nominal, was it a subject or an object, and what verbs were accompanying it? I want to focus on these nominal uses because doing simple collocations like this can often tell a lot about how agents are perceived within texts. So onto the results! Out of the 35 examples where virus/coronavirus/covid-19 appeared within a headline, 16 of those examples used it as a nominal phrase, where it was treated as an object. In these 16 examples, 3 examples placed it in the subject headline: The coronavirus and an oil glut yield chaos worldwide. Coronavirus Devastates Detroit Police, From the Chief on Downward 'Instead of Coronavirus, the Hunger Will Kill Us'. A Global Food Crisis Looms. So in these examples, the coronavirus yields chaos, devastates, and can potentially kill us. In these examples, coronavirus is obviously set up as a threatening force. But what's interesting to me is that those are the only examples where coronavirus is given agency. Considering the devastational force it has had on so many aspects of today's society, it's interesting to note that it's not seen as a particularly active force. Indeed, out of those 16 above examples, 8 (or 50% of them) place virus/coronavirus/covid-19 as an object, where someone or something is acting upon it: Trump Weighs Push to Track Virus as Part of Reopening Plan The Ideas that Won't Survive the Coronavirus 'Turn Around, Go Back': Summer Islands Don't Want Coronavirus, or You Singapore Seemed to Have Coronavirus Under Control, Until Cases Doubled Protesting for the Right to Catch the Coronavirus Protesting for the Freedom to Catch the Coronavirus New Zealand loosens restrictions and moves closer to eliminating the virus. Germany's infection rate falls, a sign that it is getting the virus under control. Now, look at the verbs that accompany virus/coronavirus/covid-19 when it is an object: the president is tracking it, ideas won't survive it, islands don't want it, Singapore seemed to have it under control (until they didn't), rights and freedoms exist to catch it, it is being eliminated and under control. These are verbs of surveillance, verbs where it is either being caught or under control. So when virus/coronavirus/covid-19 are not given agency, they are seen as being under surveillance or control (the examples of catch are interesting: normally we wouldn't think of catch as being a verb of control, especially when thinking about viruses, but the fact that catch collocates with rights and freedom, two highly-charged words in the American context, seems to suggest that people still have a degree of control over whether or not they catch it). Now let's look at the five examples where virus/coronavirus/covid-19 occurs with the verb be: The Coronavirus is Mutating. What Does That Mean for a Vaccine? Coronavirus is Killing Silently. Treat It Before It's Too Late. Is the virus on my clothes? My shoes? My hair? My newspaper? How Covid-19 Is Making Millions of Americans Healthier For Charlie Kirk, Conservative Activist, the Virus is a Cudgel In these examples, the virus is mutating, killing silently, exists as a potential threat to clothing and household items, and, for some people, is even a club. All bad things, to be sure. But, paradoxically, the virus is also making millions of Americans healthier. So here, we do see possibilities that the virus can be equated with all sorts of things - mostly, but not unequivocally, violent. So it's interesting to think about what is going on here. When the virus is given some sort of agency, it's uniformly bad: destructive, devastating, and deadly. But, when it becomes the object, the recipient of another's action, it's controlled: it's tracked, it can (by choice, presumably), and it ultimately won't survive - in effect, it's disempowered, and perhaps loses some of its inherent danger. All of this makes me think about Lakoff and Johnson, and the idea of the metaphor. THE FUTURE IS BAD. That seems clear. THE VIRUS IS DEATH. That is also clear. But there also seems to be a strong thread of THE VIRUS IS CONTAINABLE. Perhaps we should be giving more attention to that metaphor as well.

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