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An appeal to the heart and a punch to the gut

Two magazine covers this week use visual metaphor to drive home the emotional impact of separating immigrant children from their parents at the US border.

The Time cover above has been “fact-checked” to reveal that the girl in question really wasn’t separated from her parents but, as this Mediapost article suggests, that doesn’t really negate the emotional power of the image. 

Throughout history we have seen metaphors transform the way people think about social issues. In the days before photography and film were widespread, these metaphors often came in the form of fictional stories like Uncle Tom’s Cabin which, though it perpetuated its own distasteful stereotypes, painted a poignant word picture about the horrors of slavery. And The Jungle, whose stomach-churning descriptions of the meatpacking industry changed the way the government regulated food production.

In more recent times, the images of African Americans being hit with firehoses and attacked while sitting at lunch counters and the graphic images of the body of Emmett Till brought home the injustices of inequality in a way that words could not. Iconic images of a young girl screaming in pain after a napalm attack and Nguyen Ngoc Loan’s execution of a suspected Viet Cong officer transformed how many Americans felt about US involvement in Vietnam. These images were metaphors that symbolized a broader set of experiences and concerns.

On the other hand, the few polls released late last week show no effect whatsoever on President Trump’s approval ratings. Perhaps all the outrage about his policy – and the power of these images – are much ado about nothing, in terms of public opinion. Or maybe it takes time for these metaphorical images to sink into our consciousness.