The Causes of Human Rights Violations (33): Nefarious Political Metaphors

I want to go out on a limb here and argue that most if not all human rights violations as they have occurred throughout human history can be explained and have been directly caused by the persistent and widespread use of metaphors. (Which doesn’t mean that there are no other causes).

But before I list some of the metaphors I have in mind, a few general words that may help to explain why I think simple metaphors can do so much damage. The fact that we constantly use metaphors in language and thought may buttress the thesis that they have some effect on our actions. The same is true for the fact that metaphors are not just figures of speech but are cognitively important as well: by claiming that some things are alike – metaphors are descriptions of one thing as something else – they help us understand things.

For example, if we say that compound interest is like a snowball rolling off a snowy mountain side, we use something we already understand – the snowball – in order to understand something else that looked and sounded strange before the application of the metaphor – compound interest. And when we then understand things in a certain way, we act according to our understanding of things – in our example, we put our money in a savings account that offers compound interest rather than in one that just offers a fixed interest on the basic sum.

Or let’s use another, more appropriate example (one which I will return to below): if we have difficulties assessing the impact of immigration on our own society and culture, then the metaphor of the “tidal wave of immigration” can help us to “understand” this impact and to do something about it (stop the wave, for instance). Immigration is like a wave because it’s equally overwhelming and harmful. It’s clear from this example that the word “understanding” should not be understood (pun intended) in an epistemological sense: the point is not that understanding produces correct knowledge about the world, but simply that we believe it does. In this case, I personally think the wave metaphor does not help us to understand the phenomenon of immigration (on the contrary), but many people believe it does and it inspires their actions.

If all this has convinced you that metaphors can indeed cause political actions, then it’s now time to list what I believe have been and to some extent still are some of the most destructive political metaphors in history. (Do tell me in comments if you think of other examples).

Moral Balance

This metaphor is most clearly expressed in lex talionis – an eye for an eye – which is a form of criminal justice that claims to balance crime and retribution. A softer version is proportionality: even if people shouldn’t be punished in a manner that strictly balances out their criminal acts, they should get what they deserve and they deserve tougher sentences when their crimes are worse. There may also be a deeper metaphor at work here, one in which there is some kind of cosmic moral balance that shouldn’t be disturbed and that should be corrected when people do disturb it. Failure to correct it leaves moral imbalances intact, and that is damaging in some unspecified and metaphysical way.

Many people agree that the moral balance metaphor has done a lot of harm in the case of capital punishment, but I argue that it poisons our entire criminal justice system. We shouldn’t incarcerate people in order to punish those who deserve some amount of incarceration proportional to their crime. If we have to incarcerate, it’s because that’s the only way to protect other people’s rights. And this rule would drastically reduce the number of inmates currently in prisons all over the world. It’s fashionable to say that we have come a long way since the time of medieval criminal punishment, but I believe our current judicial practices – even those in “developed countries” – are still among the worst human rights violations in the world.


This metaphor is most harmful when it blocks assistance to the poor (and poverty is a human rights violation). It promotes an “understanding” of the phenomenon of poverty that paints the poor as lazy, self-destructive and undeserving people who only have themselves to blame and who could easily save themselves were they willing to invest the necessary effort. This “understanding” obscures many other and often more important causes of poverty and therefore perpetuates it.


Genocide, mass murder, ethnic cleansing and other crimes against humanity are made easier when the target group is persuasively depicted as some sort of “dirt”, “cockroaches“, “vermin” or any other dehumanized entity. The best way to violate human rights is to deny people’s humanity. However, dehumanization also occurs on a much smaller and seemingly harmless scale, in advertising, gender stereotypes, popular culture etc.

The dirt example shows that people often don’t even realize that they are acting on the basis of a metaphor and actually view what is supposed to be a similarity as being an identity. Many Rwandan Hutus implicated in the genocide probably believed that Tutsis and cockroaches were quasi-identical.

The Family

The metaphor of the family of fellow citizens is often used to justify differential treatment of citizens and non-citizens. For example, social security offers protection to fellow-citizens who are nationally the worst off but who are nevertheless relatively wealthy when compared to the poorest in other countries. And development aid is usually much less generous than social security. I would argue for a more cosmopolitan stance as a better means to protect the equal human rights of all human beings.

The same metaphor is used to justify excessive patriotism and the wars that seem an inevitable result of it, as well as authoritarian government by a father figure or by people who think they know better.

The Wave

As mentioned earlier, this metaphor is used to counter immigration, when in fact increased immigration could do an enormous amount of good, not only for millions of poor people all over the world, but also for the populations in the more wealthy destination countries.

The metaphor does some more damage when it’s used in overpopulation discourse. Horrible population control policies are supposedly justified by the “wave” of overpopulation, and as if these policies aren’t harmful enough by themselves, they have disastrous side effects such as gendercide.

The Child

This metaphor has often been used to subjugate women, those supposedly childlike creatures unable to control their emotions or to marshal the forces – physical or mental – necessary for many social roles. Slaves and colonized peoples as well were often viewed as childlike beings in need of the White Man’s guidance.


So, what can we take away from this? It would seem that we can’t do much about human rights violations: metaphors are notoriously hard to weed out and if they caused rights violations in the past they will continue to do so. But that’s not entirely true. While we may not be able to remove certain metaphors from common language, we may reduce their impact on real life events and their salience in certain circumstances. We can chip away at their nefarious role in rights violations, and that’s exactly what we already did in the past.

For example, the child metaphor used to be an important conduit in the submission of blacks, but that’s no longer the case today. The metaphor is still there and is still doing damage (in criminal justice for instance, as an analogy for punishment based on a supposed lack of self-control), but its range has been curtailed. Curtailment of harmful metaphors often means dismissing the similarity between things that a metaphor has tried to establish. For example, if we can show that immigration doesn’t do the same damage to a society as a “tidal wave” but actually has a lot of benefits, then the metaphor of the “tidal wave” can be curtailed.

Other posts in this series are here. More on the effect of language on human rights is here.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (24): What is the Marketplace of Ideas?

I’ve often invoked the metaphor of the marketplace of ideas to justify the right to free speech. (See these older posts). I think it’s useful to spell out in some more detail what the metaphor means, how far it goes and how it can bolster the right to free speech.

The point is this: ideas that can get themselves accepted in a competitive market of ideas will tend to be of better quality than other ideas. The marketplace of ideas therefore improves the quality of our ideas and our thinking. If different ideas are presented in an “ideas-market”, and if that market is populated by a maximum number of free agents expressing themselves freely, then those competing ideas will be exposed to a maximum number of supporting and dissenting arguments, and the balance of arguments in favor of or against an idea will be compared to the same balance for counter-ideas. The idea with the best balance will “survive”, because alternative ideas will be seen as comparatively defective, given the fact that the arguments in favor of them are weaker or the arguments against them are stronger.

It’s crucial that there is mass participation in the argumentation and deliberation going on in this market, since only mass participation will allow for the multiplication of possible arguments and alternative ideas. Hence, it’s also crucial that there’s a right to free speech and that everyone (or at least a large number of people) has and effectively exercises this right. This mass participation of free and expressive agents will improve the quality of ideas and of their supportive arguments even before the ideas reach the market: people who know that their ideas will meet probing and massive criticism will prepare themselves for this criticism, and this preparation means that they will preemptively develop supportive arguments and undermine opposing arguments. Hence, these ideas may even change and improve before they reach the market.

Exposing ideas to the test of the market doesn’t mean telling only your friends or your countrymen about them. Ideally, the market includes the whole of humanity; people who are close to you may share your biases and hence may not see the weakness of certain arguments or may not come up with the killer counter-argument. Another metaphor that can make this point somewhat clearer is the metaphor of perspectives: if you only look at a square from one side (or from one perspective) because no one told you that there’s another side or because in your group or culture it’s not common to suppose that there’s another side, you may not come to see that the square is actually a cube.

Without this massive and global participation of free speakers, many valuable points of view or perspectives will not be made public, and many valuable objections and counter-arguments will not be known to someone defending a certain thought or idea. This can diminish the quality of the thought or idea in question.

This ultimately global nature of the marketplace of ideas gives us not only a justification of the equal right to free speech, but also a justification of the universal right to free speech.

So, the marketplace of ideas shouldn’t be understood in purely economic or literal terms, as a place where ideas are “traded” or “sold”, or “produced” and “consumed”; that wouldn’t make any sense. Of course, the result of the marketplace of ideas is that some people “trade” their old ideas for other ideas because the marketplace has proven that some ideas are hard to defend. In some sense of the word, ideas – and alternative ideas – are “exchanged”, as are arguments for and against ideas, but they aren’t exchanged in an economic sense. Also, one can argue that ideas have a cost: it may have been very hard and therefore costly to establish the set of arguments in favor of a winning idea (the marketplace of ideas is a tough place); or it may be costly in terms of status to hold on to an idea that has been thoroughly debunked in the marketplace. In the end, however, it’s never advisable to take metaphors too far or to use economic thinking where it doesn’t belong.

One important caveat: none of this should lead to the conclusion that massive support for an idea automatically turns this idea into a good one. It’s not because many people have decided that an idea is strongly supported by the best arguments and that other ideas have failed, that they are right. Maybe the marketplace of ideas hasn’t worked properly, because some of the prerequisites aren’t there (massive participation, strong speech rights, an educated citizenry etc.). Maybe the popular assessment of the balance of arguments rests on nothing more than prejudice. If you insist you can call this a “market failure”.

Here’s a quote that nicely illustrates my point – it’s about scientific discourse but it applies generally:

Science works very well as a social process, when we can come together and find flaws in each other’s reasoning. We can’t find the problems in our own reasoning very well. But, that’s what other people are for, is to criticize us. And together, we hope the truth comes out. … [W]hen people reason on their own, they’re unable to arrive at a good solution, at a good belief, or to make a good decision because they will only confirm their initial intuition.

On the other hand, when people are able to discuss their ideas with other people who disagree with them, then the confirmation biases of the different participants will balance each other out, and the group will be able to focus on the best solution. Thus, reasoning works much better in groups. When people reason on their own, it’s very likely that they are going to go down a wrong path. But when they’re actually able to reason together, they are much more likely to reach a correct solution. (source)