Metaphors affect us

I was chatting with a pal last week about metaphors and how they affect us. We talked about Brexit - not whether Brexit is a good or bad thing, but about how we think about it. Here's a summary...

The EU Referendum question was: "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?” Most discussion has been using terms like in/out and remaining/exiting. The dominating metaphors have been akin that of a members club. We joined in 1973, we’ve been on the committee and a whole lot has happened. Now it is time to leave. We don’t want the benefits of the club any more and we don’t want to pay the fees. With this metaphor, leaving will mean clearing out our stuff, handing in our locker keys, paying off outstanding dues and giving up our parking space. We’ll be free to go. We can join other clubs or do what we want.

A different metaphor might be just as relevant: a tree in a wood, rather than a member in a club. Forty-three years ago we planted our sapling oak in a stand of trees in a wood. Over time our tree’s roots have become entangled with those of the other trees: some roots are inches thick and firmly knotted together. The billions of fine fibrous roots that grow at the edges of the root systems have become mingled and matted. New trees have been planted and their roots are beginning to entwine also. The climate has become harsher and the wood is not as vibrant as it was. The trees are weakening, branches fall more readily in the high winds. Some of the less hardy ones are in danger of falling. Ivy has grown and mosses cover some of the roots. There's change in the insect population and hence in birds and small animals. The ecosystem is adjusting.

With this metaphor, leaving the EU might be like transplanting our tree to another part of the wood. We will dig around the main roots, preserving as many as possible. We will be forced to saw off many others and put a spade through the fine ones. We will find a new place to plant the tree. We will dig a hole and fertilise the soil in it as best we can. We will wrap and carefully preserve the tree while we move it; and water and feed it whilst it establishes in its new place. The move will weaken the tree and maybe make it vulnerable for a while. With luck the tree will strengthen, the sawn roots will heal and new ones will grow. Of course the other trees are part of the wood and subject to the same climate. We won’t plant ourselves quite so close to the other trees as we did before, but that may expose us more to the wind... And so on. You get the picture.

With a different metaphor, might we have had a different debate?

(I really don’t want to stir up Brexit grumps. I do want to stir up thinking about the importance of metaphors.)