The words we use matter. And not just the words themselves, but how they are employed to form metaphors. Cognitive linguist George Lakoff talks about “conceptual metaphors,” the metaphors that actually shape how we think, rather than simply spicing up our language with some literary zest. According to Lakoff, such metaphors and “frames” are the ideas that allow us to understand what we are experiencing. “Naming is giving language to those ideas – often ideas you already have, possibly as part of your unconscious brain mechanisms,” he says. “Naming can make the unconscious conscious.” And considering that an estimated 98% of human thought goes on in the unconscious realm, the ability to pull something up into consciousness by means of an idea that gives it both shape and sense is an especially powerful tool. So powerful, that it can be very easily manipulated – and is, of course, on a regular basis.
In recent years, no metaphor has been more manipulated – and with such toxic effects – as austerity. Under the aegis of “austerity,” nation after nation has either implemented a neoliberal economic program or aggravated an existing one, privatizing state-owned assets, slashing benefits and raising the tax burden, more often than not, on those least able to bear it. In the case of Greece, Troika-imposed austerity has caused a Great Depression comparable with the worst depressions in economic history, worse, indeed than America’s in the 1930’s. And, judging by the state of the negotiations between the Syriza government and the Eurogroup as I write, there is another giant helping to come on Greece’s plate.
Austerity has become such a household term that we tend not even to realize how powerful a framing device it is. This is precisely because its work goes on beneath the limen of our consciousness, reinforcing itself every time we repeat (or write about) it. Austerity provides neoliberal policies with a luster of responsibility, discipline, and maturity. What is more, it attributes to those policies a combination of moral virtue and aesthetic beauty which they in no way deserve. I am a great admirer of austerity. I strive to lead a simple life, with few luxuries, not only on moral or ecological grounds but because, as in the classic Shaker hymn, I consider it a gift to be simple. Even after so many years away, the plain, unadorned interior of a New England meeting house continues to speak to me more than façade after façade of Baroque excess. As does a stark winter landscape, with its denuded trees and snow. The austere scoring of a Brahms symphony sends me into raptures that all the bells and whistles of flashier composers cannot compare with. And the conflation of qualities I cherish with an economic doctrine that leads to impoverishment, egregious concentrations of wealth and the rending of a social safety net is, to me, offensive. But that is the way framing and conceptual metaphors work.
So let’s return austerity to where it rightfully belongs: to a Gothic cathedral, to a Bresson film, to the spareness of a Wyeth painting. And let’s engage in the necessary exercise of renaming what the rest of the European Union is doing to Greece. Instead of austerity, for example, Noam Chomsky has suggested “class war”. While accurate, I think we can go one better. For a frame or conceptual metaphor to work, it has to contain a compelling visual element. I suggest asphyxiation. Just imagine how different the current debate would be if the Eurogroup were considering whether or not to asphyxiate Greece for another five years. And how appropriate that, like the word it would be replacing, asphyxiation is also Greek in origin: “asphyxia” comes from α- “without” and sphyzein, “to throb.” Not the mere stopping of breath, but of the heart.