AP photo - John Locher
Ann Mongoven is the associate director of Health Care Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are her own.
Why do the press, politicians, and public frequently refer to mass shootings as tragedies, tragic events, or shooting incidents?
A brain tumor is a tragedy. A tornado is an event, a bad-weather incident. A mass shooting is mass murder.
Metaphors matter. A metaphor is a comparison of one thing in terms of another. For example, it is a deliberate metaphorical appeal to note that the United States now loses a Vietnam War in deaths to gun violence every 18 months.
But subtler indirect metaphors also subconsciously shape our view of reality. Metaphor is used to describe ideas or phenomenon too big for straightforward description. As theologian Paul Tillich succinctly quips, the symbolic metaphor “points to while participating in something beyond itself.” Put bluntly, metaphor partially forms the world.
In their classic book Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson explain why metaphor is intrinsic to human reasoning. Metaphors grip us psychologically through the rub of the non-literal comparison. All metaphors both highlight and obscure some aspects of the larger phenomenon they seek to describe.
Metaphors do not exist in isolation. They occur in families. Lakoff and Johnson encourage citizens to be critical of metaphorical families through a four-step process. They urge us to (1) notice specific metaphors in common use; (2) consider how they are related; (3) step back to ask what overarching comparison is implied by the family of terms; and then (4) ask ourselves if we ethically wish to endorse that “master-metaphor.”
Such critical metaphorical extrapolation is exactly what critics of President Trump have done, especially since the revelations that the El Paso shooter was motivated by anti-immigrant sentiments. These critics examine together a set of specific metaphors that Trump has used to describe immigrants: criminals, rapists, vermin, hordes, invaders. They name the overarching comparison implied by that family of metaphors: the immigrant as Demonic Other. They rightly demand an ethical rejection of that master-metaphor, and its full family of related terms.
But there are pervasive ways of speaking among the entire populace that normalize gun violence. We must all become mindful of the metaphors we commonly use to describe gun violence. We must notice what they highlight and obscure. We must step back and ask ourselves what overarching comparison they imply, and whether we ethically wish to endorse it.
One entrenched family of metaphors that deserves critical debunking is a linguistic web implying this master-metaphor: gun violence is natural. If you don’t think that gun violence is natural, stop talking about it in terms of tragedies, incidents, and events. That is a metaphorical family that we use to describe natural disasters.
“Tragedy” conveys a sense of misfortune, the vicissitude of nature over and against the frailty of human mortality. While the term highlights the catastrophic consequences of mass shootings, it obscures their intentional nature. That intentional execution is further downplayed through the use of terms such as “incident” or “event” to describe shootings, language often applied to things outside of human control. To call a mass shooting a tragic incident is linguistically to pose it as inevitable.
Ironically, the language of “tragedy” is often paired with a metaphorical description of the shooter as “pure evil.” Thus, the shooting is a natural disaster, while the assailant’s power is a diabolical force that breaks into the natural world. So mass murders are rendered both an act of God and an act of the Devil. The paradox spares us from thinking about the massacres as products of human culture, the shooters as neighbors raised in our communities, and the shootings as preventable.
Newly-voiced resentment at the tradition of public figures offering “thoughts and prayers” (only) in the wake of massacres may signal a first step toward unraveling this metaphorical family. The public seems to be tiring of language and rituals that pose gun violence as a spiritual problem, generated by external cosmic forces requiring an interior response.
The metaphorical nexus by which American culture naturalizes gun violence extends to how we describe guns, and how we categorize shootings. One of the most obscuring descriptions is “assault-style” rifles. The hyphenated addendum makes them seem poor imitations of the real thing, like a street knock-off compared to a real Rolex. And “assault” is vague (couldn’t any gun be used in an assault?). But whether fully automatic, semi-automatic, or “bumped,” these very real guns have more power and speed than the machine guns American troops used to fight two world wars. Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg has changed public conversation constructively by referring to them as weapons of war. Weapons of war and assault-style rifles are not the same thing, even though they are. (The objects are the same. The world-shaping power of their names is not.)
How we categorize gun-killings also becomes part of the rhetorical naturalization of gun violence. “Mass shootings” are defined as incidents in which four or more are shot in the same event. But the vast majority of gun killings in America are of individuals or groups smaller than four. Somehow, nearly 40,000 deaths a year by murder and suicide do not count as mass killing. By contrast, most of the tens of thousands of killings each year are implied to be isolated incidents. And while the mass shootings of focus in public discourse occur in public spaces, the majority of mass shootings (even by the takes-four-to-count criterion) are killings of intimates in private settings. There is nothing “domestic,” a word that implies tame, about that violence.
Consider the following alternative descriptions of a mass shooting:
- “Following the tragedy in ____(fill in the blank)___, law enforcement officials ascertained the shooter had legally purchased his assault-style rifle. The incident is re-igniting debate about a proposed ban on the public sale of assault rifles.”
- “Following the mass murder in _____(fill in the blank)____, law enforcement officials ascertained the shooter had legally purchased his machine gun. The massacre is re-igniting debate about a proposed ban on the public sale of weapons of war.”
Currently, ways of speaking that pervade all sectors of our society naturalize gun violence. We cannot both stand by those words and stand with the victims. Changing how we talk is the first step to stopping the killing.
 Tillich, Paul. Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper and Row, 1957); Chapter Three.
 George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, 2nd edition (University of Chicago Press, 2003).