A jumble of thoughts… I’ve been reading a lot of George Lakoff recently. He shows how metaphor dominates our language and behaviour. Here’s a bit of Wikipedia:

Metaphor has been seen within the Western scientific tradition as purely a linguistic construction. The essential thrust of Lakoff’s work has been the argument that metaphors are primarily a conceptual construction, and indeed are central to the development of thought. He suggested that: “Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.”

And also, at a less fundamental level, he talks about how language frames work in politics:

The phrase “Tax relief” began coming out of the White House starting on the very day of Bush’s inauguration. It got picked up by the newspapers as if it were a neutral term, which it is not. First, you have the frame for “relief.” For there to be relief, there has to be an affliction, an afflicted party, somebody who administers the relief, and an act in which you are relieved of the affliction. The reliever is the hero, and anybody who tries to stop them is the bad guy intent on keeping the affliction going.

Which I think can perhaps be interpreted both as ‘choice of language has a huge impact on our thinking’ and ‘language is enormously imperfect as a system’. To put it crudely, many we are forced to use a flawed system to do important things. Perhaps this underlines how intent is paramount in discourse: use these tools as best you can and you should be forgiven for errors,  but use the quirks to achieve corrupt aims and deserve condemnation.

Sadly we can’t read minds to confirm the intent, so people with good intentions can be seen as baddies… and that’s why people who are actually on the same side argue with each other on Twitter.

In mental health, the term ‘mental illness’ is controversial – this is from ‘Thomas Szasz’s Summary Statement and Manifesto’:

“Myth of mental illness.” Mental illness is a metaphor (metaphorical disease). The word “disease” denotes a demonstrable biological process that affects the bodies of living organisms (plants, animals, and humans). The term “mental illness” refers to the undesirable thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of persons. Classifying thoughts, feelings, and behaviors as diseases is a logical and semantic error, like classifying the whale as a fish. As the whale is not a fish, mental illness is not a disease. Individuals with brain diseases (bad brains) or kidney diseases (bad kidneys) are literally sick. Individuals with mental diseases (bad behaviors), like societies with economic diseases (bad fiscal policies), are metaphorically sick. The classification of (mis)behavior as illness provides an ideological justification for state-sponsored social control as medical treatment.

This seems to equate metaphor with error, and implies that the mere fact of something being ‘metaphorical’ is the problem. But saying you feel ‘up’ or ‘down’ is also metaphorical, while far less controversial. In fact, Szasz actually uses the word ‘feelings’ for internal emotional states in this statement, and it’s strictly speaking a metaphorical term – he’s not talking about touching anything physically.

However it also talks about the metaphor being an idealogical justification – to me, this is the key issue and a Lakoffian one. The issues is not that ‘mental illness’ is a metaphor, but that it’s – arguably – a bad frame.  Now I’m not actually sure myself it’s a 100% a bad frame – for instance some people seem to benefit from thinking of themselves as ‘ill’.  The charity I used to work for, Rethink Mental Illness, were criticised for using the term and explained that it

…puts mental health on a par with physical illness, which helps people who don’t know much about mental illness to understand how serious it is

Anyway, if this is a bad frame, I personally don’t think it’s used en masse to deliberately perpetuate “ideological justification for state-sponsored social control”  but more because – as Lakoff might suggest – we are surrounded by and immersed in metaphor, for things standing as other things. Sometimes the symbols fail us in one way, but succeed in others, and  it’s a matter of striking a balance. ‘Mental illness’ might be a controversial term but I would argue that it’s no ‘tax relief’ when it comes to who uses it and why they use it.