The ‘Savings’ versus ‘Cuts’ Metaphors

In the U.K., the Labour Party has complained to the BBC over the broadcaster’s use of the word “savings” to describe the coalition government’s efforts to reduce the budget deficit. The Labour Party insists these efforts should be described as “cuts,” as this piece from The Guardian makes clear. All the fuss about cuts versus savings has to do with “associated commonplaces,” the term coined by philosopher Max Black to describe the clouds of metaphorical associations and connections conjured up by even the simplest words.

Metaphors—and the associated commonplaces they activate—matter because they frame how we think. A metaphor opens up certain avenues of thought even as it closes down others. Just think of the different associated commonplaces created by the terms ‘estate taxes’ versus ‘death taxes’, ‘healthcare reform’ versus ‘socialized medicine’, ‘collateral damage’ versus ‘dead civilians’, ‘rightsizing’ versus ‘mandatory job losses’. Each of these terms conjures up very different and typically contradictory associations. And the more metaphors like this are repeated, the more firmly entrenched the attendant associated commonplaces become.

The Labour Party doesn’t want the deficit reduction effort to be described as ‘savings’ since ‘savings’ has an overwhelmingly positive connotation, especially during an ‘age of austerity’. Conversely, the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition doesn’t want the deficit reduction effort to be described as ‘cuts’ since ‘cuts’ has an overwhelmingly negative connotation, and implies inflicting real pain.

If this all seems kind of obvious and harmless, consider the dramatic effect different associated commonplaces can have. In Miller-McCune, Tom Jacobs describes how University of Michigan researchers asked two groups of people a question about the environment. One group was asked whether they believed ‘global warming’ was happening; the other group was asked whether they believed ‘climate change’ was happening. Around 86% of self-identified Democrats believed the environment was altering, regardless of how that process was described. Among self-identified Republicans, however, 60% endorsed ‘climate change’ but only 44% endorsed ‘global warming’. Why?

“‘Global warming’ entails a directional prediction of rising temperatures that is easily discredited by any cold spell,” Jacobs quotes the researchers as saying, “whereas ‘climate change’ lacks a directional commitment and easily accommodates unusual weather of any kind … Moreover, ‘global warming’ carries a stronger connotation of human causation, which has long been questioned by conservatives.” In other words, different associated commonplaces trigger dramatically different responses. Maybe useful to remember as we try to figure out how to save the planet by cutting CO2 emissions…