Challenging societal barriers: The power of metaphors and analogies in addressing stigma

By Alemu Tesfaye

Alemu Tesfaye (biography)

How can we overcome stigma, regardless of whether it’s associated with health conditions, socio-economic status, or individual identities? How can we use metaphors and analogies to convey how stigma hinders effective dialogue, intervention, and inclusion, contributing to a cycle of fear and misunderstanding, and discouraging affected individuals from seeking help or intervention due to fear of judgment, discrimination, or isolation?

Metaphors and analogies are powerful cognitive tools that shape our understanding and perception of the world around us. We employ both in our everyday language and thought processes, often without realizing it, and they heavily influence how we interpret new experiences and information. They allow us to create meaning, understand complex concepts, and connect with others in more profound ways.

In my work, I have developed the following metaphors and analogies for grasping the silent battles of individuals with two neglected tropical diseases – podoconiosis and scabies – as a vital first stride towards tearing down the wall of stigma, neglect, and discrimination that surrounds these conditions. The metaphors and analogies are also applicable to other social and medical problems.

The Invisible Wall Metaphor: This envisions stigma and discrimination as an invisible wall, a barrier built from fear, misunderstanding, and misinformation. With each fact learned, each myth debunked, we swing a metaphorical hammer, gradually chipping away at this wall. Brick by brick, as more people join in, we can bring down this barrier, fostering a society where understanding and inclusivity take center stage.

The Foggy Morning Analogy: The stigma surrounding certain conditions can be likened to a thick fog that shrouds the landscape. It blurs our vision, leading us to misconceptions and prejudices. But by shining the light of awareness and education, we can dissipate this fog, uncovering a clearer and more empathetic understanding.

The Walled Garden Metaphor: Individuals suffering from stigmatized diseases and other conditions can be likened to being trapped within a high-walled garden. Inside, they might feel safe from prying eyes, but also lonely and isolated. By breaking down the walls of stigma and discrimination — constructed out of fear and misunderstanding — we can create open spaces where acceptance and empathy can flourish.

The Kalahari Desert Metaphor: Stigma is like the vast, arid Kalahari Desert. It is an intimidating barrier, difficult to traverse, and seemingly unending. But just as desert-adapted species find ways to survive and thrive in the Kalahari, so too can affected individuals and communities find ways to overcome this stigma with education, awareness, and advocacy.

The Migration of Wildebeests Analogy: Each year, hundreds of thousands of wildebeests embark on a daunting migration across the Serengeti, facing numerous challenges and predators along the way. Similarly, overcoming the stigma associated with various diseases and conditions is not a small task, it is a long journey with many obstacles. But with determination, community support, peer support and education, progress can be made, much like the wildebeests that reach their destination despite the odds.

The strategic use of metaphors and analogies to communicate about stigmatised health and other conditions can turn intricate concepts into relatable narratives, fostering empathy and making the abstract tangible and the distant relatable. Likening stigma to concepts such as an “Invisible Wall” or a “Foggy Morning,” provides vivid imagery that captures the essence of the challenges faced by those affected and that begins to dismantle the barriers of stigma, creating a more inclusive and empathetic society.

What are your thoughts on the use of metaphors and analogies in addressing societal issues? Have you encountered any powerful metaphors or analogies that changed your perspective on a stigmatized topic? How can we further leverage these tools to foster understanding and empathy in our communities?

To find out more about metaphors and analogies, see:

Hofstadter, D. R. and Sander, E. (2013). Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking. Basic Books: New York, United States of America.

Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (2003). Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, United States of America.

Ritchie, L. D. (2013). Metaphor. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, United Kingdom.

Biography: Alemu Tesfaye MBA is Regional Programs Manager (Research, Communication, Knowledge Management and ICT (Information and Communications Technology)) at the Organization for Social Science Research in Eastern and Southern Africa (OSSREA), in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. His interests include communication, knowledge management and translation, and community engagement.

2 thoughts on “Challenging societal barriers: The power of metaphors and analogies in addressing stigma”

  1. These are good, non-confrontive metaphors that can help people recognize and unpack their prejudices and opportunities to live differently. I also like the blind men and the elephant story, where each one was sensing something totally different than the others, and no one had the definitive sensation to understand an elephant. Each felt very self-righteous and insistent on his partial experience, while all were ignorant of the whole. People similarly get locked into ignorant stereotypes through lack of exposure to the enormous diversity of life, and now get reinforced on social media for even crazier stereotypes and prejudices. We also need new stories and metaphors to unpack the Happy Stereotypes of models, prosperity, upward mobility, wealth, jet setters, celebrities, and advertising in general, which hooks people into wasteful lifestyles of self-delusion and superficial appearance.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

      I completely agree that metaphors, like the parable of the blind men and the elephant, offer profound insights into the nature of perception and the limitations of a single viewpoint. This story serves as a poignant reminder that our grasp on reality is often partial and subjective, influenced by our limited experiences and the siloed information we receive. It’s a powerful analogy for the importance of holistic understanding and the danger of clinging too rigidly to our individual perceptions.

      Your observation about the ‘Happy Stereotypes’ perpetuated by media and advertising is equally compelling. These narratives do indeed shape our values and aspirations, often aligning them with materialism and a very narrow definition of success. Creating and sharing new narratives that celebrate diversity, sustainability, and authenticity is crucial. We need stories that reflect a broader range of human experience and encourage more environmentally and socially responsible lifestyles.

      This highlights the broader role of storytelling and metaphor in society. It’s not just about understanding and dismantling negative stereotypes but also about constructing new narratives that can inspire positive change and foster a culture that values every individual’s contribution to the tapestry of human experience.

      Your input is a valuable addition to the conversation, and it spurs us to think more deeply about the metaphors and stories we live by. Thank you for contributing to the dialogue.


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