From a trickle to a flood: water metaphors and their emotional pull

One of the most depressing things about British politics right now – and trust me, there are plenty of things to get depressed about – is the fact that there aren’t really any mainstream politicians who’re willing to be honest about the fact that the country needs immigrants . . . and that without significant amounts of immigration, the economy in general and the NHS and the care sector in particular would be in grave danger of collapsing.

Instead what we get is the worst possible people exploiting the suffering of those fleeing conflict or hardship abroad and demonising the most needy and vulnerable. As Nesrine Malik wrote in a very perceptive Guardian article recently, the main policy seems to be ‘neglect, deflect, and then scapegoat those you’ve exploited’.

Obviously, much of the way that this is done is through language – language that England footballing legend Gary Lineker recently claimed often resembles that which was used in Nazi Germany. Given that we are an island nation and that the sea and ships and sailing have lent themselves to so much of our metaphorical understanding of the world, it’s perhaps no surprise that some of the most powerful and emotive phrases used by politicians are what you could call inundation metaphors.

If an area of land is inundated, it’s flooded – filled with water. It’s something you might read about in articles discussing the impact of the looming climate catastrophe, which note that as sea levels continue to rise, the area of land inundated will increase over time. If a company has a particularly popular product, they might find themselves inundated with orders and if a firm has vacancies for well-paid, secure jobs, they’ll probably be inundated with applications. Newspapers are sometimes inundated with complaints after printing misleading or downright untrue articles – or they might be inundated with phone calls and emails. At the same time, though, populist politicians who want to whip up fears about immigration might complain that a country is being inundated by ‘invaders’ or ‘swarms of migrants’.

In the same way, we also hear of places being swamped. As you may know, a swamp is an area of very soft, wet land. Maybe the most famous example is the Everglades in the south of Florida, where if the alligators don’t get you, the snakes might. Or the quicksand. Or the bull sharks. When the sea is rough, little boats can be swamped by the waves, rivers can break their banks and swamp hundreds of homes and whole towns might be swamped by huge tidal waves. In a more metaphorical sense, we often talk about popular resorts being swamped by tourists during peak season, foreign imports might swamp the market, and you might be swamped with work at particularly busy times of the year. Note than none of these things are much fun, which is, of course, why Margaret Thatcher, keen to play on fears of immigration in her bid to win the 1979 election, talked of concerns that ‘this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture’ and it’s also why her modern successors claim British towns are ‘swamped by immigrants‘.

While these are perhaps the most dominant metaphors used, we also hear of people pouring into the country – just as you can pour someone a drink or pour the wine in a restaurant, and blood can pour from a wound, sweat or tears can pour down your face, it can be pouring with rain outside, and crowds can pour out of a stadium at the end of a football match.

A city might be in the grip of a crime wave, and the country might be swept – or rocked – by a wave of protests or strikes. A wave of panic might sweep through a crowd – or through the financial markets. We’re all having to get used to extreme heat waves in the summer, governments might be rocked by a wave of scandals, and companies might have to face up to another wave of redundancies . . . while those wishing to exploit our fears might warn of yet another wave of illegal migrants poised to cross the Channel in little boats.

If you’ve ever lived near the sea, you’ll probably be used to the idea of the tide coming in and going out – of high tide and low tide. Poor swimmers might be swept out to sea by the tide, and their bodies might later be washed up on the beach by the tide. In the same way, we talk about people being brave for speaking out against the tide of opinion, or of people just going with the tide (of opinion) because it makes their lives easier. There might be anxiety about the rising tide of crime and schools might have to take measures to stem the tide of abuse directed towards teachers.

Remarkably, our recently sacked Home Secretary Suella Braverman, a woman who did more than most to stoke the fires of racism by endlessly talking about incoming tides of migrants, had the gall to accuse the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of not doing enough to ‘stem the rising tide of racism‘, which seems a bit rich given how long he allowed her to stay in her post!

Even the way we talk about far smaller movements of water does sometimes also get used metaphorically to discuss the movement of migrants. Rivers flow into the sea, lava flows down the side of volcanoes, and if you’re lucky, a stream might flow through your garden. Local councils might take measures to improve the flow of traffic through certain areas, when there’s a fundraising event for charity, the money might flow in, and if you’re in a relaxed environment with people you get on with, the conversation will flow freely. In the same way, we might be told that there’s a steady flow of refugees coming into the country.

If there’s only a very small amount of water, it’s a trickle. If you get hit, blood might trickle from the corner of your mouth or from your nose. Shops might only get a trickle of customers on very quiet days, the flood of articles about a disaster often quickly dwindles to a trickle, details of atrocities might slowly trickle out of a remote war zone . . . and a country like Britain, which only really accepts a trickle of asylum seekers still produces politicians who try to frighten you into believing that the trickle could soon be a flood.

The real issue with all of these metaphors is that they dehumanise people and take away any sense of individual agency from people. They create images of refugees and migrants as water. They evoke images of danger and destruction and suggest that the movement of people is some sort of uncontrollable natural phenomenon.

All of this feeds into anti-migrant sentiment, which as we all know can get very nasty indeed when played out on the street. As Professor Gregory Lee, who first came up with the idea of “inundation metaphors” has pointed out: “People don’t flood, and people don’t flow. People migrate, they move, they arrive, they pass through, they travel”.

The better able we all are to understand the power of metaphors those in power use, the better equipped we are to see how they’re trying to manipulate us.

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