On-line publication date, July 29, 1999, The Journal of
Media Psychology on-line;
Hard copy publication designation, Volume Four, Number 2, Fall 1999, The Journal of Media Psychology.
This paper investigates the relationship between individual psychology,
metaphor and the media by means of a case study of the metaphors contained
in one film, Outbreak. A model is proposed whereby people's thinking
is structured by metaphor, and different factions in the media compete
to provide people with alternative metaphors according to their ideology.
Within the film Outbreak, two opposing metaphorical constructions
of illness compete with each other and one eventually wins out. Through
this device, the filmmakers promote one particular way of thinking about
illness. While viewers can critically choose which structures to use in
their own thinking, depending on their interests and motivations, films
such as Outbreak have the power to influence the way that people,
and hence societies, construct abstract domains such as illness.
This paper is concerned with the role of the media in influencing how people mentally structure their conceptualisations of abstract, complex domains such as illness. According to recent theories, metaphor plays a significant role in cognitive processing, influencing our thinking, reasoning and actions. As Lakoff and Johnson (1980:1) originally put it "Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature".
Each person is surrounded by a great variety of metaphors: in newspapers, in conversation, in books and in films. If theorists such as Lakoff and Johnson are right, these metaphors are used to make sense of and structure abstract domains such as love, time and illness. But often people are exposed to multiple and competing metaphors, which structure domains in different ways and must choose which one to take up and use in their own thought processes.
The media can play a powerful role in this process by presenting readers or viewers with alternative metaphorical constructions of domains. For example, a documentary about complementary medicine may expose people to metaphorical ways of thinking about illness they may not have otherwise encountered . But as well as that, the media have the power to influence people's choice of metaphorical construction by controlling the way that metaphors are presented, and thereby recommending or denouncing particular metaphorical ways of thinking.
This paper discusses and illustrates the relationship between individuals' metaphorical thought processes and the media by focusing on the example of the film Outbreak.
Lakoff and Johnson we perhaps the first to recognise the importance
of metaphor in everyday life. The quote earlier was from Metaphors we live
by, which was written in 1980. Since then, Lakoff, Johnson and Turner have
developed and refined the theory until now it has arguably become the foremost
theory of metaphor, most comprehensively expressed in Lakoff (1993). According
to this theory, complex target domains such as love, illness, time and
ideas are structured in peoples' minds using metaphors, which consist of
mappings to simpler source domains such as journeys, directions, containers,
For example, when ILLNESS is thought about as WAR, a series of mappings take place between elements of the two domains: the patient becomes a fighter, the doctor becomes an ally, the disease becomes the enemy, and drugs become weapons. The structure of WAR is then superimposed over that ILLNESS. Therefore the enemy/disease is attacked using powerful weapons/drugs, and, hopefully, defeated/cured. In this way, metaphor plays an important role in reasoning (Johnson 1983), since the target domain is restructured along the lines of the source domain, and the nature of the source domain influences reasoning about the target domain.
Lakoff's theory, however, has been criticised by a number of psychologists such as Glucksberg et al (1992), MacCormac (1985) and Steen (1992) for considering metaphors to be fixed permanently in people's minds without taking into account the real-time processing of metaphors. Because metaphors are assumed to be permanent mappings, Lakoff's theory is not capable of dealing with the situation where there are multiple, conflicting ways of constructing the same target domain.
An alternative is the framework described in Stibbe (1997b). Within
this framework, metaphor is considered to be a dynamic and temporary mapping
between domains which occurs as a result of a stimulus. On encountering
the stimulus, either from hearing or reading, the target domain is temporarily
restructured in the mind of hearers along the lines of the source domain.
As Fairclough (1992, 1995) points out, audiences are not passive acceptors of whatever they are presented with. Following the temporary mapping, the recipients of a metaphor have an opportunity to critically examine the restructuring and either accept it as a good way of thinking about the target domain or reject it. If they accept the metaphor, then they may use it again in their everyday thinking about the target domain.
It is at the point where recipients of metaphor are critically deciding whether to accept a metaphor that the media can play an important role in influencing their choice. The remainder of this paper illustrates this process through a discussion of the film Outbreak.
Outbreak is a film about an Ebola-type virus which causes havoc in a small town in America. Viruses like these are extremely rare, and it is unlikely that viewers will come into contact with them, either directly or indirectly. However, Outbreak is more than about one type of virus, it is also about the social construction of disease in general. The Ebola-type illness provides an extreme testing-ground for different ideological positions, and the metaphors which go along with them.
At the heart of the film is an ideological struggle between two metaphorical ways of constructing illness, one attached to the 'good side' and one to the 'bad side'. Good is personified in the form of Colonel Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman) and bad in the form of Major-General Donald McClintock (Donald Sunderland). Caught between the two sides is General Billy Ford (Morgan Freeman), who has Daniels as a subordinate and McClintock as his boss.
The characterisations are taken to the extreme, with Daniels, for most of the film, being portrayed as pleasant, kind, friendly, honest and always right. On the other hand, McClintock never smiles, is dishonest, frequently sarcastic. The title of one review of the film (Cheri 1995) is: "Hoffman hero, Sutherland scamp in thrilling Outbreak". This strong division into good and bad is part of a scheme to recommend one metaphorical way of thinking over another.
The metaphorical way of constructing illness on the 'bad' side
is overwhelmingly ILLNESS IS WARFARE. Warfare metaphors are one of the
commonest ways of thinking about illness in western culture. Their pervasiveness
led Hawkins (1993:61) to conclude they have 'become an inherent part of
our way of experiencing ourselves and the world'.
The psychological effects of structuring illness in terms of war have been analysed by many researchers, and criticised for leading to denial, encouraging strong drugs and surgery without heed to side effects, focusing attention on the disease rather than the patient, and leading to unnecessarily frightening images .
Outbreak is crammed full of warfare metaphors. However, despite the fact that nearly all characters are in the army (the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases), warfare metaphors are used only by McClintock and Ford. For example, McClintock tells Ford 'We are at war Billy' and Ford passes this down to Daniel's with the words 'We've done all that we can as doctors. We have to go on as soldiers' .
This powerful mapping between doctors and soldiers links the two domains of illness and war, creating at one stroke all the other associated mappings in viewers minds, mapping the illness onto the enemy, and the bombs of the military onto drugs for curing the illness.
This mapping is temporary and available to subsequent mental evaluation. However, while creating the mapping between war and illness in the minds of viewers, the film is also denouncing the mapping by associating it with the bad side. The film is essentially making the same point about Ebola as Ross (1989:40) makes about AIDS:
Indeed, in the 'War on AIDS' metaphor, the concrete reality of thousands and perhaps ultimately millions of sick people in need of medical care and social and emotional support is entirely lost sight of, primarily because there is no important role for the sick in a war. This makes war a poor metaphor for AIDS public policy.
In Outbreak, McClintock is the epitome of uncaringness towards victims. At the beginning of the film he drops a bomb on an infected army camp, and towards the end he plans to do the same to a town in America. He says 'you delayed the bomb, all your sentential bullshit...you silly sentimental son-of-a-bitch'. This reinforces the message that if illness is constructed in terms of war, the consequence, in terms of reasoning, is that all sentiment and caringness towards patients disappears. Therefore, viewers who are at the critical stage of deciding whether warfare is a suitable way to structure illness will be encouraged to reject it.
While warfare metaphors are discouraged, alternative metaphors are commended by being associated with Daniels and his crew.
Daniels uses two main metaphors to organise his response to illness. The first involves the metaphor of ILLNESS AS CONTEST. He personalises the virus in a way that McClintock and Ford do not, for example 'This is the scariest son-of-bitch I've ever seen', 'This thing kills everything in its path' and 'we'll map this guy down to its last gene'. The following exchange, which occurs while Salt shows Daniels and Casey a picture of Motaba on a screen, is particularly telling of how Daniels' side conceptualises the virus:
Salt: Sirs, Mr Motaba, up close and personal.
Schuler: I hate this bug.
Daniels: You have to love its simplicity. It's one billionth our size and its beating us.
Schuler: So what you wanna do, take it to dinner?
Daniels: Kill it.
Tackling, or even fighting, a personal opponent is a different metaphor from warfare. The source domain consists of a contest between two sides. These two sides map onto the target domain elements of Daniel's team and the virus. The main difference between a contest and warfare is that in warfare any act is sanctioned, even if civilians are sacrificed. However, in a personal contest, everything is focused on the two opponents, with no-one else involved.
The weapon that Daniels uses to hunt down or fight the virus is that of problem-solving, and the metaphor shifts to the second of the main metaphors associated with Daniels' side: ILLNESS AS A PROBLEM TO BE SOLVED.
From the start, Daniels' approach uses the discourse of problem-solving. When he first encounters the illness, he fires a series of questions at the local doctor 'Do you know the incubation period? Could an infected person have gotten out of the village? [Who was the] first case, patient zero? Did you identify the carrier, the host?'.
The metaphor of ILLNESS AS A PROBLEM TO BE SOLVED has also been investigated by psychologists. Diekema (1989:21) suggests that when doctors see medical situations as a puzzle, then solving the puzzle might become more important than caring for the actual patients. He gives the example of a woman with mysterious symptoms: 'This intellectual puzzle is a nice one, but only within the problem-solving metaphor, since the woman's suffering is unrelieved'.
The focus away from people and onto the puzzle can be seen when Daniels and his team sit around a whiteboard trying to solve the problem of the virus. On the whiteboard the victims of the illness have become boxes, and the discussion of death and infections has become casual and almost flippant - Casey says 'bing, bang, bong it infects the whole theatre'. The indifference to suffering caused by the PUZZLE metaphor can be seen when a woman, ill herself, watches her boyfriend die. She starts screaming, but instead of comforting her, the doctor responds with 'I need you to help me. Look at me Alice. Did Jimbo tell you anything? Did he talk to you?"
On its own, the problem-solving metaphor could be directed towards solving the many problems that patients and their relatives have: pain, discomfort, confronting death, bereavement, or how to deal with a sick family member. However, the metaphorical construction of illness on Daniels' side consists of a combination of two metaphors ILLNESS AS A PUZZLE and ILLNESS AS A CONTEST. Since the opponent in the CONTEST is mapped onto the virus, this directs the problem-solving activity towards beating the virus, focusing on the two combatants rather than on the victims and their relatives.
The possible drawbacks of the ILLNESS AS A PUZZLE metaphor are
not drawn out in the film. Instead, this mode of thinking is highly commended.
This is achieved firstly through associating it with the 'good guys', and
secondly through showing that it has spectacularly beneficial results.
Using the problem-solving metaphor, Daniels manages to find a 100% effective
cure within twenty-four hours of his wife getting sick, and saves her,
the town and the whole of America. In this way the film encourages
people to accept the temporary mappings between curing illness and puzzle-solving
as a good way to think about illness. This may lead them to use the metaphor
again in their everyday thinking and talking in the future.
This paper discussed the way that the media can influence personal construction of reality by presenting alternative metaphors and influencing viewers' decision of which ones to accept. This was done through the illustration of the film Outbreak, which contained two metaphorical constructions of illness, WARFARE and PUZZLE-CONTEST. The film uses two main techniques for recommending one metaphor and denouncing the other: the first technique is associating metaphors either with the heroic purposes of the good side or the evil schemes of the bad side. The second is showing that the WARFARE metaphor leads to terrible consequences (the bombing of a town) while the PUZZLE-CONTEST metaphor is highly successful with beneficial consequences (saving America).
Warfare metaphors have been criticised by many psychologists, and the film presented similar criticisms in a spectacular, dramatic, way to a large audience. However, the metaphors that the film wholeheartedly endorsed, ILLNESS AS A PUZZLE combined WITH ILLNESS AS A CONTEST, are not without their own drawbacks.
This paper could only briefly sketch the theoretical issues and
looked only at one case study. However, it is hoped that it illustrates
the importance of further research into the relationship between media,
metaphor and psychology, as well as critical research into the metaphors
that the media are presenting.
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