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Resurrecting the Culture Wars: Victims, Heroes and Villains Take Their Places

Once again the frame of war is being used to characterize political dissent and protest. This time it has emerged in the nomination hearings of Brett Kavanaugh for Supreme Court justice, and with it come many of the entailments for the metaphor of war. In an article posted in The Washington Post (Sept. 24, 2018), “It’s the Culture War on Steroids,” Johnson and Costa mobilize the vocabulary of war to support the cognitive structure of political dissent as war.

In framing political disagreement as a resurrection of the “culture wars,” the writers invoke many of the entailments that come into play when debate and dissent are placed within the frame of war.  While opposition on both sides exists, representations of the “culture wars” carry those binary oppositions supported by the cognitive structure of war, with opposing sides having irreconcilable differences that can only be resolved in violence of some kind. William Bennett pronounced the hearings the staging grounds for “the culture war on steroids” while Michelle Malkin, a conservative blogger and commentator, tweeted, “This is a cultural & sociopolitical battle of all battles,”. . . “The stakes are high for all upstanding Americans, not just GOP candidates.”

Thus we have “[t]he battle over the Supreme Court nomination [that] . . . has inflamed the culture wars.” Supporters of Kavanaugh “stand against the forces of political correctness” while ”liberals strike back with a passionate mantra: ‘Believe women.’” Members of Congress have “dug in for or against the nominee along party lines.” “Tensions” simmer, both Kavanaugh and Ford have encountered “threats of violence,” and Republicans have vowed to “plow through,” despite any evidence to the contrary on the fitness of Kavanaugh for a life time position as a Supreme Court justice.

What is worth noting here are the ways in which the key components of the war metaphor are activated. George Lakoff (1991) points out that in a war scenario metaphor, there are three participants: a victim, a villain, and a hero.

Following this cognitive framework, characterizations of the accusations against Kavanaugh continue the war metaphor, with Kavanaugh framed as the victim of “an ambush,” “a drive-by shooting,” and, using Kavanaugh’s own phrasing, a “last-minute character assassination.” The villains by default can be inferred to be troublesome women and members of Congress requesting an explanation for multiple accusations of sexual assault. This sets the stage for the hero—those members of Congress who will vanquish the annoying distraction of calls for further investigation by voting for Kavanaugh.

What is occluded here, in spite of Johnson and Costa’s efforts to be fair to both sides, are the inverse of the “ambush” and “last-minute” events inflicted on Kavanaugh. Those hearings began with another ambush of sorts, as members of Congress charged with vetting Kavanaugh were themselves ambushed by the release of 42,000 pages of documents pertaining to the Kavanaugh nomination one day before the hearings. And yet, only 4% of the known documents were made available to Congress at the outset, with no pause for the reading and analysis of those that were.

While Johnson and Costa seek to balance the reporting on the Kavanaugh hearings, with references to a the possibility of a second “Year of the Woman,” the balance is cast on the side of the embattled victim, Kavanaugh. With emphasis on the “rallying point for the right” articulated at the annual Values Voter Summit in Washington, DC: “Stand by Kavanaugh, and blame Democrats” and the “urg[ing]” of Mitch McConnell to “plow right through it and do our job,” it’s clear that the victim, the villains, and the heroes have all taken their assigned places in the social drama. They are simply waiting for their curtain calls—cued by the metaphor of war.


Lakoff, George. “Metaphor and war: The metaphor system used to justify war in the Gulf.” Peace Research 23.2/3 (1991): 25-32.


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