Metaphors We Kill By


Stretching back at least to that faux pas about the golden calf at Mt. Sinai, various branches of Abrahamic religions have had a thing about graven images. Which has given us aniconism, the banning of icons, and iconoclasts, who destroy offensive images on religious grounds. Orthodox Judaism has been into that at times; ditto for Calvinists, especially when it came to those idolatrous Catholics. Currently it’s branches of Sunni Islam that deploy literal graven-image police and consider the height of offense to be images of Allah and Muhammad.

In September 2005 the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoon images of Muhammad on its editorial page. It was a protest against Danish censorship and self-censorship about the subject, against Islam being a sacred cow in a Western democracy where other religions are readily criticized satirically. None of the cartoons suggested reverence or respect. Many explicitly linked Muhammad with terrorism (e.g., him wearing a bomb as a turban). Many were ironic about the ban—Muhammad as a stick figure with a turban, Muhammad (armed with a sword) with a blackened rectangle over his eyes, Muhammad in a police lineup alongside other bearded men with turbans.

And as a direct result of the cartoons, Western embassies and consulates were attacked, even burned, in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Libya. Churches were burned in northern Nigeria. Protesters were killed in Afghanistan, Egypt, Gaza, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, and Turkey (typically either by mob stampedes or by police containing rioters). And non-Muslims were killed in Nigeria, Italy, Turkey, and Egypt as revenge for the cartoons.

In July 2007 drawings by a Swedish artist of Muhammad’s head with a dog’s body provoked much the same. In addition to deadly protests, the Islamic State of Iraq offered $100,000 for the artist’s killing, Al-Qaeda targeted the artist for death (along with staffers from Jyllands-Posten), assassination plots were stopped by Western authorities, and one attempt killed two bystanders.

In May 2015 two gunmen attacked an antianiconist event in Texas where a $10,000 prize was offered for the “best” depiction of Muhammad. One person was injured before the gunmen were killed by police. And, of course, on January 7, 2015, two brothers, French-born sons of Algerian immigrants, massacred the staff of Charlie Hebdo, killing twelve.


In the Battle of Gettysburg fierce fighting occurred between the Union First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry and Confederate Twenty-eighth Virginia Volunteer Infantry Regiment.1 At one point Confederate soldier John Eakin, carrying the regimental flag of the Twenty-eighth Virginia, was shot three times (a typical fate of soldiers carrying the colors, who were preferential targets). Mortally wounded, Eakin handed the flag to a comrade, who was promptly killed. The flag was then taken up and displayed by Colonel Robert Allen, who was soon killed, then by Lieutenant John Lee, who was soon injured. A Union soldier, attempting to seize the colors, was killed by Confederates. Finally Private Marshall Sherman of the First Minnesota captured the flag, along with Lee.


In mid-2015 Tavin Price, a mentally challenged nineteen-year-old, was killed by gangbangers in Los Angeles for wearing red shoes, a rival gang’s color. His dying words, in front of his mother, were “Mommy, please. I don’t want to die. Mommy, please”.

In October 1980 Irish Republican prisoners at the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland began a hunger strike protesting, among other things, their being denied political-prisoner status by having to wear prison garb. The British government acceded to their demands as a first prisoner slipped into a coma fifty-three days later. In a similar strike a year later in the Maze, ten Irish political prisoners starved themselves to death over forty-six to seventy-three days.

By 2010 karaoke clubs throughout the Philippines had removed the Frank Sinatra song “My Way” from their playlists because of violent responses to the singing of it, including a dozen killings. Some of the “‘My Way’ killings” were due to poor renditions (which apparently often results in killings), but most were thought linked to the macho lyrics. “‘I did it my way’—it’s so arrogant. 

The lyrics evoke feelings of pride and arrogance in the singer, as if you’re somebody when you’re really nobody. It covers up your failures. “That’s why it leads to fights,” explained the owner of a singing school in Manila to the New York Times.

In other words, people are willing to kill or be killed over a cartoon, a flag, a piece of clothing, a song. We have some explaining to do.

Throughout this book we’ve repeatedly gained insights into humans by examining other species. Some of the time the similarities have been most pertinent—dopamine is dopamine in a human or a mouse. Sometimes the interesting thing is our unique use of the identical substrate—dopamine facilitates a mouse’s pressing of a lever in the hopes of getting some food and a human’s praying in the hopes of entering heaven.

But some human behaviors stand alone, without precedent in another species.


The clearest human mastery of symbolism comes with our use of language. Suppose you are being menaced by something and thus scream your head off. Someone listening can’t tell if the blood-curdling “Aiiiii!” is in response to an approaching comet, suicide bomber, or Komodo dragon. It just means that things are majorly not right; the message is the meaning. Most animal communication is about such present-tense emotionality.

Symbolic language brought huge evolutionary advantages. This can be seen even in the starts of symbolism of other species. When vervet monkeys, for instance, spot a predator, they don’t generically scream. They use distinct vocalizations, different “protowords,” where one means “Predator on the ground, run up the tree!” and another means “Predator in the air, run down the tree!” Evolving the cognitive capacity to make that distinction is mighty useful, as it prompts you to run away from, rather than toward, something intent on eating you.

Language pries apart a message from its meaning, and as our ancestors improved at this separation, advantages accrued. We became capable of representing past and future emotions, as well as messages unrelated to emotion. We evolved great expertise at separating message from reality, which, as we’ve seen, requires the frontal cortex to regulate the nuances of face, body, and voice: lying. This capacity creates complexities that no one else—from slime mold to chimp—deals with in life’s Prisoner’s Dilemmas.

The height of the symbolic features of language is our use of metaphor. And this is not just flourish metaphors, when we declare that life is a bowl of cherries. Metaphors are everywhere in language—we may literally and physically be “in” a room, but we are only metaphorically inside something when we are “in” a good mood, “in” cahoots with someone, “in” luck, a funk, a groove,* or love. We are only metaphorically standing under something when we “understand” it” The renowned cognitive linguist George Lakoff of UC Berkeley has explored the ubiquity of metaphor in language in books such as Metaphors We Live By (with philosopher Mark Johnson), and Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think (where he demonstrates how political power involves controlling metaphors—do you favor “choice” or “life”? are you “tough on” crime, or does your “heart bleed”? are you loyal to a “fatherland” or a “motherland”? and have you captured the flag of “family values” from your opponent?). For Lakoff language is always a metaphor, transferring information from one individual to another by putting thought into words, as if words were shopping bags.

Symbols, metaphors, analogies, parables, synecdoche, figures of speech. We understand that a captain wants more than just hands when ordering all of them on deck, that Kafka’s Metamorphosis isn’t really about a cockroach, and that June doesn’t really bust out all over. If we are of a certain theological ilk, we see bread and wine intertwined with body and blood. We learn that the orchestral sounds constituting the 1812 Overture represent Napoleon getting his ass kicked when retreating from Moscow. And that “Napoleon getting his ass kicked” represents thousands of soldiers dying cold and hungry, far from home.

This chapter explores the neurobiology of some of the most interesting outposts of symbolic and metaphorical thinking. It makes a key point: these capacities evolved so recently that our brains are, if you will, winging it and improvising on the fly when dealing with metaphor. As a result, we are actually pretty lousy at distinguishing between the metaphorical and literal, at remembering that “it’s only a figure of speech”—with enormous consequences for our best and worst behaviors.

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Metaphors We Kill By by Manuel Fraga is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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