Jean Stimmell: Wars and metaphors

  • A protester attending the “March for Women’s Equality/Women’s Lives” on March 9, 1986, stands by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. JEAN STIMMELL / For the Monitor

For the Monitor
Published: 1/17/2018 12:25:08 AM

The 1960s shone a spotlight on systematic oppression in America, including illuminating my own shadow, etching away my innocence to reveal my glaring chauvinist complicity. Since then I have considered myself a recovering, middle-class male.

That’s not to say I am still not jolted by extreme examples of the patriarchy’s continuing influence, sullying as it does all facets of our lives.

I had one of those jolts when I read a recent piece in the New York Times: “The Perils of Mixing Masculinity and Missiles” by Carol Cohn. She has a history working as a nuclear strategist and war planner, almost exclusively among men.

For her, ideas about masculinity and femininity are not trivial but have real, life-or-death consequences.

She challenges the idea that President Donald Trump’s sexually oriented tweets are merely impulsive and juvenile – like his recent one about having a nuclear button bigger and more powerful than that of his North Korean adversary.

Trump’s tweets remind her of how her male, war-planner associates used sexual metaphors: “The human bodies evoked were not those of the victims; instead, there were conversations about vertical erector launchers, thrust-to-weight ratios, soft lay downs, deep penetration and the comparative advantages of protracted versus spasm attacks – or what one military adviser to the National Security Council called ‘releasing 70 to 80 percent of our megatonnage in one orgasmic whump.’ ”

Cohn gives clear examples of how gender roles have the potential to determine the outcome in war strategy. When her fellow planners discussed political leaders, it was often regarding whether they had “the stones for war,” suggesting that solving conflict through peaceful means would be unmanly.

“One white male physicist told me that he and colleagues were once modeling a limited nuclear attack when he suddenly voiced dismay that they were talking so casually about ‘only 30 million’ immediate deaths. ‘It was awful – I felt like a woman,’ he said.”

Cohn does a masterful job of describing how our military planners follow, rather than logic, our culturally embedded code for masculinity: dispassion, abstraction, risk-taking and toughness, as opposed to what she says is our cultural code for femininity: emotion, empathy, vulnerability and caution.

Unfortunately, the patriarchy lives not just in the metaphors of military planners and President Trump, but in all of us. And it is these metaphors, we often unconsciously use, that help sustain the patriarchy.

George Lakoff, in his classic book Metaphors We Live By, delves deeply into the nature of metaphors, persuasively demonstrating their fundamental importance as the essential building blocks of our language: the cognitive mechanism determining how we think and act.

If Lakoff is correct, and I believe he is, it opens our eyes as to why the patriarchy is so difficult to confront: We have built patriarchal metaphors into the cultural categories by which we think.

In Lakoff’s book, ”Don’t Think of an Elephant,” he shows how the metaphor portraying our nation as a family can either strengthen or weaken the patriarchy depending on the type of parent we identify with: the strict father model that conservatives favor or the nurturing parent model for progressives.

The strict father family has a background assumption that the world is a dangerous place that has to be subdued by force. Children are born bad and have to be made good. Trump is a good example of the strict father model.

The nurturant parent, on the other hand, believes that children are born good and should be kept that way. The two core ideas for the nurturing parent are empathy and responsibility – which should not to be equated with weakness.

In another example, illustrating how the patriarchy has been incorporated into how we think, Lakoff shows how we structure our arguments in terms of war metaphors: “It is important to see that we don’t just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lose arguments. We see the person we are arguing with as an opponent. We attack his positions and we defend our own. We gain and lose ground. . . . It is in this sense that the “argument is war” metaphor is one that we live by in this culture.”

Obviously, if we are going to make inroads against the patriarchy, we are going to have to make conscious choices about what metaphors to use.

For instance, Lakoff suggests trying “to imagine a culture where arguments are not viewed in terms of war, where no one wins or loses, where there is no sense of attacking or defending, gaining or losing ground. Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance.” In other words: both/and rather than either/or.

Macho war metaphors in today’s postmodern world are dragging down our country in increasing conflict, both internally and externally, egging us on toward nuclear war, and shredding our democracy.

Our best hope is to radically revise our metaphor choices to promote equal and fair inclusion for everyone in our society – and around the world.

As Lakoff might say, we need to start a conversation and invite everyone to the dance.

(Jean Stimmell is a semi-retired psychotherapist living with the two women in his life, Russet the artist and Coco the Plott hound, in Northwood. He blogs at

Concord Monitor Office

1 Monitor Drive
Concord,NH 03301


© 2021 Concord Monitor
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy