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.