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Metaphors and propaganda – Gianluca Briguglia

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I do not agree with Donatella Di Cesare’s overall position on the war in progress (at least as far as I understand it), however I found part of her speech in one of her television appearances useful and interesting. It was when in a very lively exchange with Mario Calabresi (whose overall position on the ongoing war I share), the latter, to explain how he saw Putin’s attitude, said “It is as if the neighbor arrived with the baseball bat because you have been making a mess in the condominium for months ”(quotation marks but the quotation is not textual). Di Cesare interrupted him stating: “This is propaganda”.

I find that statement interesting and useful, because Di Cesare is right about this. This does not mean that Calabresi wanted to make propaganda for who knows what powers or that he was in bad faith (I repeat: I agree with his general position and I find the metaphor perfectly appropriate), but because when we pass from the analysis of the causes to the language of comparison, of analogy, of metaphor, we are passing from one level to another level, that is, literally, to the level of the propaganda of positions.

And in some respects it cannot be done otherwise. Collective choices are not made only on strictly rational elements, but on a type of rationality that is linked to the affective aspects, which is conveyed by images, by metaphors, by true rhetoric. This does not mean that Di Cesare is right and Calabresi is wrong, or vice versa, but that at that moment Calabresi’s opinion took the form of propaganda, precisely because of the metaphorical nature of the argument.

I am using the term “propaganda” in a neutral, not pejorative sense. After all, one can make propaganda, in the pejorative sense, even with a completely aseptic language, devoid of images and apparently objective. So that a philosopher underlines a propaganda element is something useful to everyone. Indeed, it is a pity that the discussion ended with a simple joke.

After all, the use of images and metaphors is a formidable tool to filter reality, to orient it (it would be enough to observe the hallucinated language of Putin himself, or the wide debate on the metaphor of war to define Covid), but also to make people understand to ourselves the point, to make more understandable phenomena that are certainly complex, but which otherwise risk escaping us and therefore remaining meaningless. The risk is that of manipulation (or misunderstanding) and propaganda, but it is a risk we run in every social and political phenomenon.

For the same reasons, the comparison used by Carlo Rovelli in another television program to explain his disagreement on sending weapons to Ukraine is absolutely propagandistic. “Let’s imagine – here too a quote but I’m paraphrasing – that walking down the street I see a little boy who is attacked by a big man armed with knives and guns. I can do many things, like call the police, but a stupid thing I can’t do, that of not entering the game but giving the boy a knife, inciting him to defend himself, because in this way instead of two blows he will take a gunshot or a stab “.

Apart from the fact that, unlike Calabresi’s metaphor, this one does not hold up much (I think), because it is not univocal, technically it can be closed in many ways and in a way contrary to that intended by Rovelli. Probably most of those who have listened to the comparison have thought: If I see a big man attacking a little boy, I will intervene or ask for help from other passers-by to block the big man all together. Which, according to the metaphor, would mean that in Ukraine it would have been better to intervene militarily in various states, perhaps NATO. That is, cognitively the metaphor is wrong because it makes us think exactly the opposite of what Rovelli would like us to think.

But apart from that, it is clear that we are also here, technically, in full propaganda. Not even in this case does it mean that Rovelli is a propagandist moved secretly by the former KGB. His arguments remain absolutely valid (for those who consider them such). The point is, once again, that our language is imbued with our perceptions (as well as orienting them) and with that particular political rationality which is made up of affects, judgments and prejudices, education, orientations. Let’s take this into account, in any case.