Vilnius University

11/16/2023 | News release | Distributed by Public on 11/16/2023 08:04

How Did the World Political Leaders Speak to the Nation During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Thu Nov 16

How Did the World Political Leaders Speak to the Nation During the COVID-19 Pandemic?

Assoc. Prof. Liudmila Arcimavičienė,Institute of International Relations and Political Science

Sukurta: 16 November 2023

The COVID-19 pandemic has tested political leaders and their governance strategies to extremes. In the given circumstances, political leaders had to make national health policy decisions that would contribute to restricting their citizens' natural freedoms and rights to privacy. One of the key forms of communication was their first address to the nation aimed at securing people's support in the face of the public health crisis. Have political leaders succeeded in convincing citizens that limiting their freedoms during the COVID-19 pandemic is the most appropriate way of tackling the pandemic? How did political leaders try to persuade the public of their right intentions?

Populist metaphors in political leaders' speeches

Successful female leadership during the pandemic has been widely acknowledged in the Western media. One example is Amanda Taub's article in The New York Times (15 May 2020), where the issue of political leadership during the pandemic is raised in its very title, "Why Are Women-Led Nations Doing Better?".

The strategy of political leaders' communication in a time of crisis can be approached from the perspective of critical metaphor analysis. This study focuses on the first lockdown speeches of 16 (11 male and 5 female) world leaders (the United States, the United Kingdom, Scotland, Sweden, Canada, China, Argentina, Russia, India, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Finland, Lithuania, Ukraine, and the European Union) delivered in the time period of first three months (February to April 2020) of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The collected speeches were analysed within the theoretical framework of the Conceptual Metaphor Theory, with a specific focus on the recurrent metaphorical expressions and their populist meaning. Conceptual metaphor and its linguistic representation in political discourse have received a lot of attention from the representatives of both social sciences and humanities. Metaphor analysis is particularly valued for shedding more light on persuasion strategies and their emotional effect. The phenomenon of conceptual metaphor is also related to the way the human brain and the neural circuitry operate. More specifically, the frequency and density of recurrent words in a specific context lead to established neural connections in the human brain. Recurrent patterns evoke associations that are further applied to the user's evaluation and create emotional attachment. The analysis of recurrent metaphor use helps identify the speaker's beliefs and attitudes, predetermined by activated associations and previous experiential patterns.

Gender and political leadership: differences in metaphor use

The study has compared the number of identified metaphorical expressions in relation to the entire speech by each male and female leader, also known as one of the raw frequency parameters of calculated coverage density. The analysis of metaphors has shown that female and male political leaders prioritise different persuasion strategies regarding their metaphor use. Interestingly, both genders employed the conceptual metaphors of "war," "unity," "motion," and "threat" to achieve different strategic goals. Political leaders differently managed relationship dynamics with their audience and appealed to contrasting legitimacy narratives of the national quarantine policy (Figure 1).

"Motion" and "war" were the most frequently activated source domains for the conceptual metaphor use across both genders. Women were more likely to use "unity" and "motion" metaphors, while men more frequently activated "war" and "threat" metaphors.

What is the ideological purpose of the "war" metaphor?

The ideological impact of the "war" metaphor is often explained as a means of mobilising the nation in difficult times for the pursuit of common national goals. The study has shown that male leaders use this metaphor to reach political goals by appealing to populist sentiment. This is mainly expressed through a confrontational narrative where an "invisible virus" plays the role of the national enemy. Male leaders" "war" metaphor is also characterised by its lexical diversity (e.g." enemy," "fight," "fighters," 'forces," "attack," "mobilise", "deploy", "enemy", "killer", "victorious", "win"). In contrast, women unanimously use the metaphorical reference to "fight" in the overall context of the "war" metaphor (Figure 2).

An analysis of the "war" metaphor has also demonstrated several differences in the assessment of political leadership styles enacted by male and female leaders. The "war" metaphor in men"s speeches reflects the importance of a competitive approach to national health policy (e.g., "to defeat," "to win," etc.). Competition is viewed as a sign of "strong" leadership and is embedded in the narrative of the leader as "a strict father" to the nation. This can be seen in male leaders' attempts to focus on the concepts of control and a vertical hierarchy of relationships (God > government > citizens). The male leaders' positioning of the collective identity of "the self" in confrontation with the "virus-as-an-external enemy" sounds more populist. Unlike their male counterparts, women unanimously used the common metaphorical expression of "fighting the virus" without including the "collective self" in the narrative of this "fight".

Does the "Unity" metaphor help to mobilise or polarise the nation?

Another populist feature of the male leaders" crisis communication is their combined use of the "war" and "unity" metaphors. In their lockdown speeches, male leaders' mobilising call to "unity" against a clearly identifiable virus-as-an-enemy was another populist attempt leading to a more polarised relationship between the "collective self" and the "collective other" (Figure 3).

Unlike their female counterparts, male political leaders have tried to "mobilise" the nation in their "fight" against "the common enemy" - "the virus of this pandemic." In this context, all quarantine measures were presented as an indispensable "weapon of war." The nation was given the role of the "collective self" that had to "fight" against the "collective other - the virus" and "win the battle." The "war" narrative, as one of the most common rhetorical mechanisms for achieving popular unity and support in times of crisis, has been predominant in male leaders' speeches.

"Motion" and "threat" metaphors - an attempt to scare, warn, or show sympathy?

Another essential difference between male and female crisis communication styles is their use of the "motion" and "threat" metaphors. In the context of both metaphors, male leaders focus on the "danger" narrative, which implicitly promotes feelings of uncertainty and fear (Figure 4). The sense of uncertainty is conveyed by an ongoing reference to how "fast the virus is spreading" and the "twists and turns" of the economy. This gives the impression that the problems in question (the spread of the virus and the economy) are virtually uncontrollable and are determined by the laws of nature. The sense of uncertainty is heightened when these expressions are used to contrast the "collective self" (the nation and the government) and the "collective other" (the virus, China).

Men and women use the "motion" metaphor to focus the audience"s attention on different aspects of the national health policy and lockdown measures. Men emphasise the "speed" of the virus's spread and infection, while women highlight the importance of containing the speed and prioritise the collective effort of "slowing it down." Such metaphorical uses indicate female leaders' attempts to resolve the problems and show that the crisis is manageable.

The analysis of the "threat" metaphor has pointed out similar differences. Among men, the most popular approach to the situation is guided by the arousal of negative emotions and pragmatism. By using the "threat" metaphor, men focus on the concept of "danger" to rationalise their proposed plan of action and thus mobilise a national response. For example, the former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson claims that "The biggest threat this country has faced for decades. <…> That is the moment of real danger." Similarly, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda refers to the following: "The world faces the most challenging crisis since World War II." A similar situation is observed with the male leaders' use of the "motion" metaphor - a sense of fear and uncertainty prevails and allows the tension between listeners to grow.

Female leaders, unlike men, focus on the idea of "protection from threats" and develop their supporting line in their reference to community, shared responsibility, and cooperative measures. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for example, reassures that "The federal government and the authorities are working hard to protect all members of our community." Similarly, Scottish Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon argues that, "This is for the protection of each and every one of you, your loved ones, your community, and our National Health Service." The "threat" metaphor by female leaders promotes more positive attitudes and possibly greater audience acceptance, as the importance of emotional intelligence and empathy in a time of crisis are clearly articulated.

Why did male leaders' speeches possibly have a more negative impact?

The analysis of the recurrent metaphors used in male political leaders' first national lockdown speeches has given more evidence for negative populist sentiment, activated by the following concepts: (1) the "collective self," (2) the "collective other," (3) antagonism, and (4) uncertainty. In contrast, female leaders' speeches were dominated by the narrative of the "collective self," which consistently promoted a sense of community, nurturance, and cooperative measures. Female leaders seem to represent a leadership oriented towards emotional intelligence and a horizontal hierarchy of relationships. Meanwhile, male political leaders clearly demonstrated a more competitive approach to solving pandemic problems by exclusively relying on populist sentiment, which may have undesirably affected the audience.

Can we thus argue that female leaders were more successful at winning people's hearts by demonstrating calm and optimism? This analysis is insufficient to give a solid "yes" or "no" answer to this question. At the same time, metaphor analysis has disclosed that female leaders have managed this critical situation with more emotional maturity and self-awareness.