Very few of us have experienced anything quite like the crisis we’re going through now. We don’t know how to describe it, or what to call it, or what to compare it to.
Our leaders, though, seem pretty certain. China’s Xi Jinping set the tone in February when he called for a “people’s war” against the virus. On April 1, Donald Trump declared that the US continued to “wage all-out war to defeat the virus.” On April 26, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that every Indian complying with that country’s lockdown “was a soldier in this fight.”
French President Emmanuel Macron was perhaps the most succinct. As he prepared to shut his country down in March, he simply told the French people, “We are at war.”
If you think the war metaphor is being overused, you’re not alone. But why is this kind of rhetoric such a go-to for world leaders? And should we consider other metaphors?
Metaphors allow us to see one thing in terms of another. Arguably, they are most effective when the comparison transforms our thinking. But there’s a danger in that, too.
“The choice of metaphor can affect not just the way in which we talk about something.”
“The choice of metaphor can affect not just the way in which we talk about something,” said Elena Semino, a linguist at Lancaster University in Britain. That choice, she said, can also “change the way we think about something and experience it.”
We’re not at war, we all know that. But our situation bears enough resemblance to life during wartime so as to make the metaphor appealing.
The ability of metaphor to change how we think, and maybe act, is at the root of the power of the war metaphor. It is why leaders confronted with this pandemic reached so quickly for the language of bombardment and trenches and sacrifice. They need to convey the peril in the starkest of terms.
In a way, they’re all trying to channel the likes of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who of course had to deal with a real war.
“What crimes has Hitler and all that Hitler stands for brought upon Europe and the world?” asked Churchill in 1941. “The outrage of the unopposed air bombing applied with calculated and scientific cruelty to helpless populations.”
Once Churchill had established the existential nature of the threat, he made his appeal for renewed resistance with a combination of hard truths and optimism.
“Lift up your hearts,” he continued. “All will come right out of the depths of sorrow and of sacrifice.”
With a formula as powerful as that, why wouldn’t a president or governor declare that we’re at war with a virus? And why wouldn’t we buy it?
“I have to say that I, too, sometimes slip up and fall into that language. But I think it's really important to correct ourselves and think about the impact that can be had when you're using really violent language at a time when people are already anxious and already scared.”
“I have to say that I, too, sometimes slip up and fall into that language,” said Seema Yasmin who teaches medicine and journalism at Stanford University. “But I think it's really important to correct ourselves and think about the impact that can be had when you're using really violent language at a time when people are already anxious and already scared.”
The trouble is, Yasmin says, this stuff is almost hardwired in us. We’ve deployed war metaphors to describe our attempts to control epidemics since at least the mid-1600s when a prominent British doctor called Thomas Sydenham made the comparison.
“I attack the enemy within,” Sydenham declared. “A murderous array of disease has to be fought against, and the battle is not a battle for the sluggard.”
“This might be one of the earliest instances of that kind of violent language in medicine,” Yasmin said. She notes that French biologist Louis Pasteur spoke of infectious diseases as “invading armies that lay siege to our bodies.”
Yasmin says that in the 1920s, cancer cells were described as anarchists or Bolsheviks, the enemies of that era. And in 1971, Richard Nixon took aim with his own “war on cancer.”
So, are there better ways to talk about our current situation? Lancaster University’s Semino says yes. She oversees a crowdsourced project called Metaphor Menu, which lists the many ways people with cancer think of their condition. Weaponizing their struggle works for some patients, she says. But others prefer to think of being on a journey, or in a difficult relationship — or for one person, like having a stone in her shoe. As for the coronavirus, Semino says it might be time to drop the war talk.
“If a war is protracted, people could become fed up with it,” she said. “They could think there is no victory in sight, so the messages could become less effective.”
Semino has come across several other metaphors that she thinks work better. The most comprehensive one compares the pandemic to a forest fire.
“There are firefighters fighting it directly, such as doctors and nurses,” she said. “But other people have to be vigilant in order not to get in the way and not to be in danger themselves.”
The metaphor can be extended. When the main fire appears under control, we might still have to continue to modify our behavior so that it doesn’t flare up again. Even after it has been all but extinguished, smoldering ashes could reignite the forest.
“To avoid future fires, you need to look after the wood and the land,” Semino said.
Patrick Cox is with the language-themed podcast, Subtitle, which is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities.