Subreddits and Newspeak: Decoding the Alt-Right

On June 16, 2015, Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president. On June 27, a forum was created on the social media website called r/The_Donald, an unofficial Donald Trump 2016 support forum.  From this point on, the discourse is difficult to track. Internet language transforms and evolves quickly because all language takes on a memetic quality, stacking references and subversions on top of each other until the language becomes totally inaccessible to those in the outgroup.

The vocabulary is filled with words that seem like english but reflect connotations that are unfamiliar and use grammar that changes how the words are used. Abbreviations like cuck, maga, sjw, and msm may not have been invented here, but their use is so ubiquitous as to make it difficult to penetrate the language from the outside. And this is somewhat the intention. Through the rules of the forum and the restrictions of the language, r/The_Donald keeps out any dissenters and limits the types of ideas that can be presented.

Limiting thoughts through language is essential to George Orwell’s idea of Newspeak in the novel 1984. Newspeak was a deliberate attempt to remove shades of meaning from discourse by removing words and limiting their usage. This is mirrored on r/The_Donald, leading to a culture that reinforces itself and allows for no rational discussion of opposing views.

The Definition of Newspeak

In Orwell’s world, all rational thought is created through language. When that language is limited, therefore, so are thoughts. He states in Principles of Newspeak that “Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum.”(300) If any presidential candidate could be characterized by limited word choice and limited range of thought, it would probably be Donald Trump and this is reflected on the r/The_Donald subreddit.

But this alone does not constitute Newspeak. Newspeak requires new vocabulary and abbreviations that eliminate or simplify the connotations of words. The vocabulary of Newspeak is divided into three categories. The A vocabulary consists of everyday words which remain somewhat unchanged, but their grammatical flexibility is increased greatly. Any of these words can be modified with suffixes to change the part of speech, intensity, or even to reverse them. In 1984, this is epitomized by the word “bad” being replaced with “ungood” and words like “knife” being used instead of words like “cut” or “slice.” On r/The_Donald, the word “cuck,” short for cuckold is a general purpose insult with similar flexibility. While it ostensibly refers to someone whose masculinity has been taken away, it really just means someone who disagrees with r/The_Donald’s ideology. The word can also be used as a verb, as in “When did the world get so liberally cucked?” Or it can be used as an adjective, as in “Incredible new Tweet from Cucky Tim Kaine.” It can even be reversed, as in “--ITS HAPPENING-- google finally uncucked themselves.”

The B vocabulary is described as words “deliberately constructed for political purposes.” (303) In 1984, this means words like “goodthink” that describe the principles of the party and abbreviations like “minipax.” For r/The_Donald it could be used to refer to the many nicknames and categories created by Trump himself and adopted as lingo by the subreddit. Nicknames like “crooked” Hillary and “low-energy” Jeb were purposefully created to give those people a specific negative connotation. Supporters apply the language elsewhere, invoking images of the people Trump has slandered with posts like  “VERY LOW ENERGY TEXAS. SAD.” The B vocabulary could also include abbreviations like “MAGA,” an abbreviation of the campaign slogan “Make America Great Again,” which through abbreviation loses all of the literal meaning of its individual words, instead becoming an idea that is harder to strike down. For example, if someone says “Let’s make America great again.” You can respond by saying “When was America great?” or “How do you make it great? What does great even mean?” It’s much more difficult to respond to “We’re going to MAGA!” The word becomes impenetrable.

The C vocabulary refers to scientific terms that might only be used by certain members of the party, not the general public. This vocabulary can be represented on r/The_Donald by those words used by moderators to enforce the rules of the subreddit itself. These rules forbid things like “brigading,” which means organized downvoting or devaluing of posts because of a differing ideology. This allows the moderators to discredit those who disagree with a post as being invading forces from outside the community. Another clever term in this vocabulary is “concern troll,” which refers to disingenuous criticism of Trump or the community pretending to be in support of Trump but actually supporting outsider ideology. Therefore if someone who supports Trump, but has some kind of criticism about the discourse, you can discredit them by saying something like “It's okay to disagree with Trump on the trans issue, but don't concern troll or start shilling for Ted Cruz on here,” making it seem like they aren’t even real Trump supporters if they question him. They are framed as fake supporters looking to create the illusion of dissent within the ranks.

So, r/The_Donald has different ways of limiting the thoughts of people within the community. The most powerful of these is the ability to ban anyone with a different opinion, but as in 1984, totalitarian control itself isn’t enough. You also need to control the thoughts of the people within the ideology and find ways to discredit outsiders and differing information. It is this thought control that characterizes Newspeak.

Key Example

While these examples of individual pieces of Newspeak vocabulary are interesting. It is important to take a closer look at an individual piece of discourse. For this purpose I will use this post made in June 2016: I never really worry about this early / mid-day brigading, because I know once centipedes get off of work, it's GG. Get a job, you butthurt, SJW cucks, lol! There is a lot to unpack here, linguistically.  Firstly, there are a few terms I haven’t explained in detail. For starters, “centipedes” refers to a viral video called “Can’t Stump the Trump (Volume 4),” in which Trump is shown to evade criticism and ridicule his opponents during primary debates and interviews. This is underscored by narration from a nature documentary describing a centipede as a “nimble navigator” and a venomous predator, attributes they would later ascribe to members of r/The_Donald. It’s difficult to tell how many layers of irony are involved in people comparing themselves to centipedes for being sneaky and venomous, but it’s certainly a form of Newspeak to remove negative connotations from words and turn them into compliments.

“GG” is a video gaming term that stands for “good game.” “SJW” is an abbreviation with a bit more weight. “Social Justice Warriors” refer to militaristic liberal activists devoted to identity politics. A comparable term would be feminazi, a term used to slur feminists and those they deem “too politically correct.” The use of this term and its abbreviation tie connotations of war directly into differences in ideology.

The text itself is a rationale for low ratings on r/The_Donald posts. This poster was clearly seeing several posts on r/The_Donald getting low approval ratings and sought to justify that by implying that the votes were illegitimate. “Brigading” assumes that any and all downvotes or negative reviews of a post are coming from non-believers, who purposefully planned to downvote the posts all at the same time. Rather than needing to explain how this attack was possible, or why these posts specifically were targeted, or even whether some of the votes were legitimate dissent, the poster can capture the entire idea in the word “brigading.”

The poster then connects this conspiracy to the idea that the enemy, liberals, are stereotyped as being unemployed, living off welfare or parental support. The poster labels r/The_Donald users as “centipedes” reinforcing their savvy and moral superiority, and then ends the post with three stackable insults for liberals: “butthurt, SJW cucks.” Because the language already has built-in defense systems for the ideology, this post required no original thoughts to form its argument. There is no need to defend the downvoted posts and  fellow centipedes, nor to explain why SJW cucks are bad. The language itself restricts you from questioning these assumptions.

It’s established that centipedes or Trump supporters are in the right, that’s a given. Centipedes are too nimble and dangerous to be “stumped” by opposing ideas. Simply by being a part of the subreddit, you are assumed correct. Brigading and SJW are words that naturally dismiss any disagreement as conspiracy. It’s built into the language. The only people who downvote are brigades with an agenda to discredit the subreddit, made up of warriors from an opposing side attacking peaceful r/The_Donald posters.


The difference between this form of Newspeak and Newspeak as featured in 1984 is that in 1984, language is mandated by the state. It is deliberate. On r/The_Donald, Newspeak evolves naturally and memetically. Words gain and lose connotations simply because of artificial selection. As you browse the forum, looking back on posts only a few days old there are dozens of deleted posts and comments. Many are deleted through “bots” that automatically delete posts with racial slurs and anti-trump sentiment. Others are deleted by the moderators. The end result is that any use of a word as a negative towards Trump or as a positive toward his opponents is removed. Saying “Big Brother is ungood,” is equally impossible to say as “Donald Trump is a cuck.” Cuck can only refer to people against Trump.

It is worth noting that many within r/The_Donald  criticize the left for “politically correct” Newspeak. This would be language like saying “undocumented immigrants,” instead of “illegal aliens.” “Newspeak vocabulary of the MSM,” provides a dictionary for such terms as they are used by the MSM or Mainstream Media. While I don’t agree with the premise, it is clear that Newspeak need not be a deliberate choice. It can happen whenever a culture restricts the usage of words and limits opposing ideas that would bring new connotations to the discourse. The result can be isolating language and groupthink that radicalizes an ideology to the outside world.


Works Cited

Orwell, George. 1984. New York: New American Library, 1955. Print., Web.

Local Solutions to Global Sustainability

“One of the greatest things about local government is every day you touch on the smallest issues to the largest. A day can range from sending an email about divots near second base of the ball field at Mellon Park to conversations about the national policy on autonomous vehicles.”


Councilman Dan Gilman has been working in Pittsburgh’s City Hall for thirteen years since graduating from Carnegie Mellon. He has been a Councilman for three of those in district 8, which encompasses all of Shady Side as well as parts of Point Breeze, Squirrell Hill, and Oakland. He is currently seeking a second term of office. From the beginning, he has run on a platform of environmental sustainability and responsibility. On this front, Gilman says we need to “run and walk at the same time.”


For him this means in the same day having detailed conversations about something as minor as visibility of recycling in parks to tackling huge problems like urban runoff pollution. All of this has become alarmingly crucial for local and municipal governments since the 2016 Presidential election. From Donald Trump’s administration we see a disdain for the EPA and environmentally conscious policy unmatched by any other president. Gilman says, “You can’t want to be viewed as the economic leader of the world and behave this way,” and sees the government as walking away from their responsibilities.  


The responsibility therefore falls to local government, and they have a limited toolset to address problems with world ecology. The question, Gilman says, is more what is the carrot more than what is the stick. For example, Gilman pushed for legislation that would reward building projects that were certified by Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) as having a Silver or Gold rating by increasing their building space. A 15% increase to floor area ratio plus a 15% height bonus means 15% more to charge rent on.


For tackling those problems that are larger than the city, local government also has lobbying and the bully pulpit. They will often write resolutions for the EPA or for federal government officials. Gilman was involved in conversations with the Obama Administration over the definition of water sources and trying to expand it to include streams. This would be incredibly important in protecting Pittsburgh’s water supply which is often connected to unregulated, polluted streams. “All for naught,” Gilman laments, now that regulations like this are being gutted from the EPA.


There are many limitations to fighting a global problem from local government. The clearest weakness is that pollution isn’t stationary. Nearly all of the water and air pollution in Pittsburgh is from outside city limits. Fossil fuel companies from around Allegheny county account for Pittsburgh getting an F rating from the American Lung Association.


However, local government has particular power in that they can set the standard for environmental policy. “I don’t know if I’ve ever written a piece of legislation that I didn’t basically steal from another city. A lot of us know each other.” Gilman explains that if he were to discover an inventive way to legislate sustainability, it would likely be picked up by Boise Idaho councilwoman Lauren McLean. And if it works in Boise then someone in Santa Fe might pick it up, and so on.


As it turns out, municipal governments rarely get pushback on sustainability. Very few local politicians deny the effect of pollution on livability, economy, and the global environment. Developers want sustainability because it’s good for the country, but it also saves money in the long run and their tenants have a strong requirement of sustainability. If there is any pushback at all, Gilman says, “it usually comes from the development community saying we want this too but you have to meet us halfway . You have to be a partner and have skin in the game.” It may also trickle down to union labor because any reduction in construction projects means less work for them.


Gilman does sometimes have trouble reconciling being pro-business with pro-environment, pro-union, and pro-affordable housing. “A dollar can only be split so many ways,” he says. Margins are slim in pittsburgh. If you tell developers to use american steel, it’s expensive. If you also tell them to use union jobs, capture 90% of stormwater on site, be energy efficient, you may end up with a money-losing project and nothing gets done. “Either we have to subsidize and put tax dollars in or something comes off the table.”


There will always be tension between environmental regulation and economic growth. Gilman worries about how to employ former Coal workers if we make an energy transition. This was a major stumbling block in Hillary Clinton’s campaign when she said “We're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” It’s hard to market unemployment as a positive.


The major problem, Gilman says, is the stratification of party priorities. “We’ve gerrymandered districts so badly that people are more concerned with their bases than public consensus. No one is scared about the moderate position anymore,” he says.


There isn’t a one-size fits all solution. Local government needs the help of individual activists, educated voters, businesses and nonprofits to keep Pittsburgh sustainable. Nonprofits are local government’s research and development arms. They are the ones testifying in state and national courts.


The Group Against Smog and Pollution(GASP), the Clean Water Authority(CWA), Sustainable Pittsburgh, The Sierra Club, and the Green Building Alliance are all non-profits looking to make the world a better, cleaner place and all work closely with local governments. “These are my partners,” Gilman explains, “nothing would happen without them.”


Coming from Carnegie Mellon University, Gilman is particularly appalled with the “1980s mindset,” towards technology. He says even though he avoided every class involved in science or engineering, his colleagues, the companies they developed, the companies they interned at all knew how technology could make things more efficient. “We’re making environmental policy based on 80s and 90s technology. Anything in the next decade could change everything.”


Gilman’s passion project is trying to “Moneyball” government. The name comes from the film starring Brad Pitt and Jonah hill who play baseball coaches who use math and algorithms to determine who to send up to bat instead of relying on the experience of former players.


This can be applied to government and public works. Street paving, for example, can use Carnegie Mellon artificial intelligence to map road wear and tear and come up with a prioritization for allocating funds for street paving. “Rather than having someone who has been employed by public works for twenty years with a clipboard go and eyeball a crack and say, this road needs to be paved.”


Having efficiency in government is also good for the environment. Garbage trucks are huge polluters and the quicker they can get the job done and get off the street the better. Having computers plan their route can make that happen. Also, efficiency all around means more money for environmentalism. Saving dollars and cents can mean new sustainable projects.


“Look up,” Gilman says gesturing to the fluorescent lighting in his City Hall office, “This is not an energy efficient building. And that’s just dollars and cents, the cost of retrofitting the windows and the lights would be in the tens of millions.” In order to solve problems of sustainability, you need money from elsewhere.


“It’s true that every piece you do is a small part of a larger puzzle,” Gilman says.  “If we can reduce carbon emissions in Pittsburgh it has a real impact on Allegheny county which affects Pennsylvania.” Still, he knows that cities cannot stop problems like global warming on their own.


Gilman expressed grave concern about future generations. “Where we were six months ago wasn’t where we needed to be. Now we’ve taken massive strides backwards.” As much as Gilman values the impact of local government, if DC undoes EPA regulations, it can render their efforts moot.


The key point that Gilman wants to highlight is that the federal government isn’t taking responsibility for the real local effects of pollution and global warming. Much like health care, gun violence, and other ignored national issues, “You’re going to have the impact trickle down to local governments,” he says. “If I’m spending municipal money on what the federal government should be doing that’s money I can’t spend to pave your streets or fix your ball fields.” Just because the federal government doesn’t care about the environment, doesn’t mean the fight is over. Nor does it mean we have no tools to continue the fight. It all comes down to local government.

Man with a Gun: How to Approach Male Violence

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, between 1980 and 2008, 89.5% of all homicides in the United states were perpetrated by men. This number is staggering; it establishes that America doesn’t just have a problem with violence. America faces a terrible epidemic of male violence.

Even accounting for our society’s tendency towards leniency for crimes perpetrated by women, this is still troubling figure. It calls into question our ideas about why violence exists in our society. Perhaps it isn’t drugs, or violent movies, or even guns that account for this violence. What if the real problem was men, or more specifically toxic ideas of masculinity?

What follows this conclusion is a greater question: are men genetically, neurologically, pathologically more violent? Or have we as a society rewarded violent behavior in men?

The Biological Factors

There is always a great deal of scrutiny whenever studies are released claiming to understand how brain chemistry impacts behaviors, especially antisocial behaviors such as violence. But if we are to determine how biological sex differences impact male violence, a good place to start is neuroscience. Neurobiologist Jan Volavka analyzed a series of experiments that may suggest that brain chemistry might explain the sex differences in violent behavior.

Neurotransmitters are chemicals that help brain cells communicate with each other in a number of ways. For instance, you might know the neurotransmitter epinephrine by its colloquial name, adrenaline, which causes neurons to fire quickly and encourages a fight-or-flight response. This plays a major role in violent outbursts and so-called “crimes of passion.” This is supported by norepinephrine, a similar chemical.

The gene that produces the enzyme, monoamine oxidase (MOA) is meant to break up norepinephrine. This gene is located on the X chromosome and as such it is much more likely for men to have missing or mutated MOA genes. Women have two X chromosomes producing MOA while men only have one.

In mice, scientists suppressed or “knocked out” MOA genes, and males exhibited more aggressive behavior while females did not.

Another neurotransmitter called serotonin helps the brain regulate impulsive behavior. It is formed by an amino acid called tryptophan through the enzyme, tryptophan hydroxylase (TPH). In a preliminary study by the American Journal of Medical Genetics (1998) showed that a genotype with limited TPH “was associated with impulsive-aggressive behavior in male (but not female) patients” with personality disorders as well as increased suicide rates.

The issue of suicide is significant in that while men are more likely to commit violent acts on others, they are more than 3.5 times more likely to commit suicide than women. These behaviors could be linked by a lack of regulatory function in the brain.

However, it is important to note that these studies were mainly conducted on people with mental illness. That is to say, of men with personality disorders, those who could not produce enough serotonin also could not control impulses to commit violent acts. That doesn’t mean that low serotonin levels cause violence, only that it may allow for violent behaviors that might otherwise be suppressed.

The lesson might be that neurological differences in violent behavior will mainly deal with impulsive violence rather than premeditated. This is reflected in the criminal data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. For instance, men were responsible for 90% of gun homicides, but only 60% of poison homicides.

While these associations may seem conclusive, it is still a point of debate whether differences in brain chemistry imply anything about the cause of antisocial behavior at all. Feminist Neuroscientist Cordelia Fine calls the implication that sex differences in the brain account for all societal differences between men and women “Neurosexism.”

In her book “Testosterone Rex,” she explains, “To be very clear, the point is not that the brain is asexual, or that we shouldn’t study sex effects in the brain...he point is rather that, potentially, even quite marked sex differences in the brain may have little consequence for behaviour.” She debunks several studies that were meant to show that testosterone is the source of all masculine behavior (as a matter of fact, all women have testosterone as well). Fine believes that being recognized as male has a greater impact on us developmentally than actually having a Y chromosome.

It is sociology and not biology that determines male violence.

Sociological Factors

If we could view men in a total vacuum, it would be easier to say whether violence is or isn’t biologically driven. Men instead exist in a culture that promotes violence as a solution to all of men’s problems.

One sociological factor that comes immediately to mind is that gun ownership is a traditionally masculine behavior. Men used to hunt with guns and fought in wars with guns while women were excluded, which affects the social perception of guns as a man’s weapon. According to the Pew Research center, men are three times as likely to own a gun as women. Naturally, this means more men see guns as useful tools. The media reinforces this with constant messages of gun-toting male heroes protecting their families both in the news and in our fiction. That isn’t to say that movies like “Taken” (wherein star Liam Neeson uses violence to save his daughter) are inherently harmful, but taken in turn with other expectations of masculinity, it contributes to a culture of male violence.

Also significant is gang-related homicide, an almost exclusively male type of violence that accounted for more than 6% of all homicides in 2008, up from 1% in 1980. This type of violence has been increasing where others have fallen and men commit upwards of 98% of gang-related homicides.

One particular type of male violence is sexual violence, such as sexual assault, stalking, or molestation. In these categories, men commit the vast majority of offenses. Aaron George is a housefellow at Carnegie Mellon University, and he must constantly confront people brought up on charges for sexual assault on campus. He explains that for most students sexual assault isn’t caused by malicious intent, but by ignorance and adherence to social scripts.

Social scripts are how we assume certain events are supposed to be. One social script that is hard to break is that men in this society are expected to be the instigators of sex, and another is that men are supposed to want to have sex with women in college. These are the narratives present in college movies and they affect our own assumptions about the world. According to George, this can lead to men “trying risky sex behaviors,” such as going to parties with heavy drinking to find vulnerable women.

Social scripts can also come into play in instigating fights (real men stand up for themselves), domestic abuse (real men are dominant), or even violence related to robberies (real men need to provide for their families). In George’s view, it is these social scripts more than biology, neurology, or psychology that really determine behavior. Social scripts are the rules we follow without thinking because they are what we are shown by older generations, by fiction, and by the news media.

Perhaps, as some psychologists suggest, it is a combination of biological and sociological influences in a never-ending feedback loop that create male violence. This is the idea of “precarious manhood” as defined by Jennifer K. Bosson and Joseph A. Vandello from the University of South Florida.

According to this theory, our society’s conceptions of manhood is seen as something to be “earned” or “proven” and that it is something that can easily be taken away if others see a man as not exhibiting traditionally masculine traits. If then we define violence as a masculine trait, it is clear to some individuals that they must commit violence to secure their own masculinity.

Women do not have this same pressure to to secure their womanhood. Bosson and Vandello compare losing a sense of manhood to a woman becoming infertile. Our conceptions of what makes a woman a woman are less to do with behavior and more to do with biology.

In one study conducted by Dennis Reidy and three University of Georgia psychologists, they interviewed men on what they called “masculine discrepancy stress.” Similar to “precarious manhood,” the discrepancy is between how masculine a man feels and how masculine they feel society expects them to be. According to the study, “men who perceived themselves as less macho than most, and who felt anxiety or tension as a result, reported rates of assaults causing injury 348 percent higher than men low on discrepancy stress.”

Aaron George has also had experience with this discrepancy stress as he works with male survivors of sexual assault and relationship violence. In many cases, the survivors feel their masculinity is damaged and they end up trying to “reassert their masculine identities,” through things they can control. Sometimes this means focusing on sports and external validation, but other times it means getting into fistfights or trying to dominate others with sex.

When confronted with ideas about toxic masculinity and violence they’ve committed they will perform a kind of “mental martial arts” to deflect blame onto others. This is a self-defense mechanism for perpetrators of violence, because backing down and admitting guilt also goes against masculine social scripts.   

Other Factors

Some psychologists trust the science of evolutionary psychology, saying that violent behaviors in men were more advantageous for survival and procreation. Margo Wilson and Martin Daly of McMaster University in Canada discuss in their book “Homicide,” how polygynous species (species wherein males seek multiple partners) competition for sex encourages violent and aggressive behavior. Their studies look at everything from fruit flies to chimpanzees and many exhibit more aggressive behavior within their own species over competition for sex than they do over competition for food.

This view of psychology is more than a little problematic to most people who study gender. It implies that any behavior men exhibit that might be damaging is not their own fault, but a “biotruth,” a fact of nature that can’t be argued against. This can lead to a “boys will be boys” mentality where we do nothing to teach men how to assert masculinity without violence. Dr. Fine states in “Testosterone Rex,” that unless you are “Ghengis Khan,” men have never been likely to impregnate dozens of women in a lifetime and that competition would not explain the violence against women that men exert. When one spouse murders the other, wives are the victims six times as often as husbands, and this cannot possibly be explained by mating competition.


Certainly, if any topic resisted a simple conclusions section, it would be this one. Our questions about sex alone defy any satisfying answer. Our questions about violence even more so. We may never know or agree on exactly why men kill so much more than women.

What we can say though, is that dealing with problems of male violence should be prioritized and we should resist those who say we can solve it with just cultural changes or just policy. The problems with male violence are embedded in our culture, our DNA, our very being. We have to be better at educating our sons about toxic masculinity. We have to be better at treating neurological issues that result in violence. We have to be better than simply allowing male violence to dominate.

Riots and Protests: Metaphors Regarding Anti-Establishment Demonstration

As the lines between protest and riot are blurred, the news media continues to use metaphorical language to either condone or condemn participants of events like the Ferguson Protests and Baltimore’s recent Freddie Gray Protests. Both of these incidents began after police shot and killed a black man, and in response hundreds participated in both peaceful rallies and violent looting. Reporters will often default to metaphors comparing the riot to a war, firmly establishing two sides without the possibility of compromise. Others prefer to compare the protests to a natural disaster like a forest fire, shielding participants from blame. Even if reports simply refer to the incidents as criminal acts, the metaphor breaks down as it loses any sense of purpose the group had for creating change.

In this paper, I will discuss how these different metaphorical frames can distort our understandings of these events, which I will refer to as riotous protests. In order to avoid controversy on such recent events and in order to show a larger historical context, I will not be using examples of reports on either the Ferguson or Freddie Gray protests. Instead I will use reports from the 2011 London Riots. The events surrounding these riots were similar: economic unrest and feelings of racial persecution, a cop racially profiling and shooting Mark Duggan, and protesters trying to create change while destroying millions of dollars worth of property. By discussing the way these riotous protests were reported, I hope to show the ideological impact of different metaphorical frames.


Before we show the texts in detail, I would first like to make clear what I mean by metaphorical frames. This idea was established by George Lakoff in his book Don’t Think of an Elephant in which he asserts that when we use certain metaphorical language, we prime readers to respond a specific way. This type of metaphorical language is called a frame, as it fixes our ideas about something through comparison. If we purposefully change a frame to fit an ideological stance, we are ‘reframing.’ If a concept is new and we can’t understand it, we are missing a frame. Essentially, a frame is the difference between calling the cost of a government project “government funds” rather than calling it “taxpayer money.” Both of these are metaphorical constructs only having meaning in the context of government spending. The former frame implies that the money was always the government’s money and they can spend it how they want, while the latter implies that the money really belongs to citizens and is being stolen if it isn’t spent the way taxpayers think it should. Likewise the framing of these events as either protest or riot carries a connotation of either being inherently peaceful and progressive or inherently violent and aggressive.

You may be thinking that these aren’t metaphors but literal words. However, Lakoff and his colleague Mark Johnson assert in their book Metaphors We Live By that in fact all language is metaphorical. This is because our minds themselves are metaphorical, understanding concepts with prototypes that we compare and contrast with the physical world. These conceptual metaphors are so ingrained into our culture that we hardly recognize them anymore. For instance, we always describe time in terms of money. If we do nothing, we waste time. If you work hard at something you are investing time in it or spending time.

The same applies to riots and protests. We see riots as conceptually similar to wars. There are two opposing sides, and both sides fight until one side wins and the other surrenders. Protests on the other hand are seen as demonstrations, they are a group of people speaking out and trying to send a message to the powers that be. Sometimes the protests get out of hand, but this is no one’s fault. It is seen as conceptually similar to natural disasters like forest fires that spread and cause destruction through no will of their own. These two metaphors are incompatible, which leads to the discrepancies in the ways we talk about riotous protests. These discrepancies are readily apparent in the following texts.  

“Urban riots: The battle for the streets” was the title chosen for an article written by The Guardian in the wake of the London Riots. This is an immediately problematic title and certainly a metaphoric one. Framing the riots as a war between police and criminals, the Guardian sought to dismiss the idea that the rioters had any goal other than destruction of the rule of law. The article makes constant references to order and disorder, criminal activity, and property damage but all within the frame of war. It refers to London as a battleground, and to the police defending the rule of law, and to the “urgent fight for the nation’s soul.” This frame makes the reader assume that the end goal of the rioters is the destruction of democracy itself.  In fact, the protest was meant to change the hierarchical class system and to limit the powers of police. Whether or not every protester had a pure motive, the frame is unfair in categorizing them as enemy combatants.

To be fair, the author goes on to rewrite the metaphor. The article advises the government not to bring the army in to quash the rebellion, and says that weapons like tear gas should be a last resort. However, this information doesn’t fit within the frame we have set up. If the rioters are enemy combatants on a battleground, why shouldn't the government send in the troops? If democracy itself is at stake, why not employ curfews and allow arbitrary arrests? The frame of war is already set by the title and the inflated language of the first few paragraphs so these allowances to the opposing side feel false. This is the power of a frame.

On the other hand, Time magazine is very forgiving of the protestors. While it still refers to them as riots, the frame is very different. Consider the title: London Riots: Why the Violence Is Spreading Across England.  What is the conceptual metaphor in play here? The violence is being compared to a disease or fire. Instead of battling and gaining ground, the violence is spreading on its own without any agents actually being violent. The police aren’t defending the rule of law, but instead are simply performing “interventions” to stop the spread. The article uses other metaphors as well to describe the outbreak of the riots. For example, the author refers to the strained relationship between the cops and the citizens as a reason for the violence. This kind of defense for their actions is completely missing in the first article, but even the framing of police and protester as having a relationship rather than being enemies contributes to the condoning of the riots themselves. One section describes “underlying issues ...boiling over,” another metaphor that implies this tragedy was inevitable. It is clear that the author has little desire to hold criminals accountable for their actions, but instead sees the London riots as complicated movement with real grievances that has simply spun out of control.

Again, the article has some information that conflicts with the frame provided and the reader is likely to skew the facts in order to fit them into the existing frame. There are plenty of figures describing the property damage and looting. Still, when the article describes violent acts and destruction, the reader is likely to view them through the lens of a natural disaster rather than an act of aggression from a military organization. The frame deflects whatever ideas don’t fit within it.

So how would these articles look if they used a different metaphor, or tried to avoid metaphor altogether? I will show several specific examples from each text and demonstrate how it could be reframed to have a different effect on the reader.

From the Guardian

Example 1: “In not much more than 72 hours since the first looting, the riots have become a defining contest between disorder and order. In that contest, important caveats notwithstanding, there is only one right side to be on. The attacks, the destruction, the criminality and the reign of fear must be stopped.”

The metaphorical context here implies that the author and readers are judging each side and deciding who will win with their support. This would seem to be an accurate reflection of the world except that it frames the contest as between order and disorder. All people believe in order but some people feel police brutality is an issue that needs to be stopped. The frame prompts anger towards those causing disorder, the rioters. Imagine if instead we used the metaphorical frame of a judge and jury.

Revision 1: “In not much more than 72 hours since the first looting, the riots have become a trial with the rioters as defendants and the police as prosecution. In this case, we must pass judgement and there is only one right way to rule. The attacks, destruction, and crimes against the city must be stopped.”

This retains the condemnation of the rioters without inflating the events or forcing readers to join one side. It merely requires the people to judge the actions for themselves while suggesting the moral side to be on.

Example 2: “The rule of law in the cities of Britain must not only be defended against delinquent destruction. It must also be enforced. There can be arguments about wider issues later. Today, in this moment of threat, the necessary position is to stand behind the police.”

The ideas of defense, destruction, and enforcement are clearly part of the war frame. The more significant idea here is the “moment of threat” metaphor. This may seem like literal language, but it evokes the speech that politicians use during wartime to justify the suspension of human rights. Because we are in a moment of crisis or threat we give up our rights in the name of the rule of law. I’d like to make it clear that there is no way to rewrite these sentences literally. The rule of law is not a physical thing to protect, nor does our language have a word for protect that doesn’t imply war or disaster or something else we would defend against. Still we can reverse these metaphors and see what happens.

Revision 2: “The police of Britain’s cities must not only intervene against the spread of delinquent destruction. They must also enforce the laws in place. There can be arguments about wider issues later. Today, as we are faced with this crucial decision, the moral position is to stand behind the police.”

Again, we have sucked out the idea of the rioters being automatically immoral and instead asking readers to choose who to side with. They no longer need to defend against the threat of the moment but instead intervene in the crucial decision of how to deal with the oncoming disaster.


Example 3: “But the more urgent fight for the nation's soul is still being fought out in the streets. Right now, this is about control.”

The metaphor of the fight for the nation implies that the goals of each side are mutually exclusive, which is not true. The protesters do not want the destruction of the police and democracy itself. They merely want limits on police power, and the police want peace to be restored. This metaphor eliminates the possibility of compromise. Instead, we could say:

Revision 3: “But the more urgent debate over police control is still causing destruction and violence in the streets. Right now, we must return to peace.”

This a vastly different frame that allows for settling the protests rather than destroying them.


From Time Magazine

Example 1: “Paul Bagguley, a sociologist at the University of Leeds, believes rioting will continue to spread to other cities unless police step up their intervention.”

This metaphor of riots spreading like weeds, disease, or fire removes any agency from the rioters themselves. It places the blame for any violence on police, the only character in the frame, for not intervening enough. Intervention itself is also vague enough not to suggest subduing the riots like a criminal or destroying the riots like enemy combatants. If we reversed the metaphor and made it more like the first article, it would look like this:

Revision 1: “Paul Bagguley, a sociologist at the University of Leeds, believes people in other cities will join the fight unless police bolster their defense and defeat the rioters now.”

The agents are now in play but the conflict is framed as war. There is certainly some middle ground between the two frames, but this demonstrates how the use of each frame warps our perception of the events and primes our response to it. For the original, we might wonder why police have done so little to intervene while for the revised version we might condemn the people in other cities for joining in riotous activity.


Example 2:  “And they will do little to resolve the underlying issues that are now boiling over. Racial tensions have fomented much of the anger that's being released...”

This is based on the conceptual metaphor that anger is hot, which comes from the physical heat we experience when mad. Steam in this metaphor is the violence and looting. Foment while not denotatively referring to heat, has its etymological origins in heat and still carries a hot connotation. Boiling over and releasing both imply that this violence was inevitable from the sparks of racial tension. It is no longer the fault of the rioters, they are simply a natural physical phenomenon that we created through racial inequality. No one blames a fire for being hot. We can change the frame like this:

Revision 2: “And they will do little to reverse the issues that protesters are fighting for. Racial inequality has been a contentious issue, and rioters’ frustration with the lack of progress informs their violent behavior...”

This new frame again uses a fighting metaphor to give agency to the rioters. Racial tensions are no longer causing the violence, but the rioters’ frustration about it, which we can attribute to their own emotions.


Example 3: “... and that informs the deteriorating relationship between officers and the communities they police. That many of the looters come from high-crime areas that are heavily policed strains the relationship even more.”

This is probably the strongest metaphorical frame in either article. Lakoff states that we identify most strongly with frames that take large groups of people and reduce them into interpersonal interactions we see every day. In this case we see police and communities as either a friendship or a romantic relationship. When they fight, both are at fault. The relationship deteriorates rather than one side declaring war or anger naturally boiling over. The police strain the relationship by being overly controlling while the rioters overreact and lash out. We understand the frame at play because it is personally relevant to us all. We can change the metaphor to try and make it more literal, but it becomes confusing.

Revision 3: “...and that makes some people in the community angry at the officers while officers distrust the people. Because many looters come from high-crime areas, police officers are seen as being too harsh on crime and the people are assumed to be criminals.”

This still isn’t completely literal. “Police being seen as too harsh” metaphorically represents the idea that individuals act a specific way toward certain police officers in an unruly manner. This idea is much easier to convey if we look at it like a human relationship allowing both sides to have agency and room for compromise despite all the violence.

While Lakoff and Johnson would almost certainly agree that these articles are using metaphorical frames to prime reader responses. Some experts might disagree. Joseph Williams for instance would argue that all of these ideas could be reduced to literal language. He would say that the use of the war metaphor serves to make the argument about the riots more elegant and intense. It is a part of the pleasure of the piece not the distortion of meaning.

Eileen Way would probably categorize much of the language in the Time article as having turned into literal language. She would say foment is being used literally rather than for its meaning of adding heat from its origin. She would agree however, that many of these passages cannot be translated into literal language without losing meaning.

Geoff Thompson would have urged me to go even further, picking apart nominalizations and other forms of grammatical metaphor wherein one form of speech is transformed into another. He would argue that my goal should be to revise these pieces until the metaphors are congruent, literal speech. This would be the only real way to ensure the pieces reflected the real world.

Each of these has some merit, but for my purposes this analysis is accurate and complete. While Williams is correct in that the metaphors are being used intentionally in some places for intensity, I feel that many are simply the result of the author’s ideological frame informing their choice of metaphor. If they used a different metaphor they could still convey the same intensity but without forcing as much of an ideological frame onto the reader. I agree with Way that many of the words like spread and foment have taken on literal meaning, but they retain their original connotations and follow Lakoff and Johnson’s idea of conceptual metaphor. Thompson is certainly accurate in saying that nominalizations are a form of grammatical metaphor and transformation, but I feel that even without changing the grammar and simply changing the frame I have shown the ways we interpret riots and protests. I also disagree with the idea that all sentences can be made literal and congruent, because describing the motives of a group can never literally illustrate the motives of each individual within it. Protests and riots are subjects which will always be discussed somewhat metaphorically.


To discuss these events rhetoricians must create a unified metaphorical discourse for riotous protests. This discourse must not absolve participants of criminal acts, nor can it dismiss the movement entirely. To do this is no easy task. The media has difficulty conveying the intentions of a group, each individual having their own motives and goals and each enacting those goals differently. Until we decide which metaphor is more congruent with the real world, different articles will tell entirely different narratives about these riotous protests. We may end up losing the ability to condemn these groups if we act like they have no agency like forces of nature. We may lose the ability to see their side of the argument and learn from these protests if we see protesters as military combatants.

Maybe the best way to view these events is through the frame of a human relationship. This is only briefly used in the Time article, but it presents a much stronger metaphor that encompasses the agency of police and rioters, but also shows the complicated reasons for the violence. It isn’t a perfect metaphor, as again the intentions of each individual cannot be conveyed. But imagine that instead of saying “the rioters left the battleground in shambles” or “the protests spread and grew out of control,” we said “The protesters lashed out when confronted by police animosity, hurt by the feeling of powerlessness brought on by the recent police shooting.” We can acknowledge agency without unilaterally condemning riotous protests.  The way we view these events is important, as more and more riotous protests break out every year. By analyzing our frame of reference, we may be able to reach a greater understanding.


"Urban Riots: The Battle for the Streets." Editorial. The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 9 Aug. 2011. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.

Adams, William L. "London Riots: Why the Violence Is Spreading Across England." Time Magazine. Time Inc., 10 Aug. 2011. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.

Lakoff, George. Don't Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate: The Essential Guide for Progressives. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Pub., 2004. Print.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live by. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1980. Print.

Williams, Joseph M., and Gregory G. Colomb. Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. Boston: Longman, 2010. Print.

Way, Eileen C. Knowledge Representation and Metaphor. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 1991. Print.

Thompson, Geoff. Introducing Functional Grammar. London: Arnold, 1996. Print.