In Political Communication, We Always Seem to Be Fighting a War

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Communication specialists are often employed to guide their clients through problems and obstacles, whether personal, professional, political or otherwise. Given the demands of such moments, it is understandable that rhetoric is used (especially in political communication) to invoke a sense of urgency, that threat or promise which must be addressed quickly and powerfully. Very often, this rhetoric utilizes the metaphors of war and fighting and constructs an enemy who is imbued with a power and ruthlessness that designates them as a threat. This threat is then used to motivate collective action. 

One academic paper notes: "The domain of war is employed metaphorically for all types of human struggle and conflict. War metaphors have become an indispensable part of the English language over hundreds of years, since more and more war terms like besiege, fight for, win out, attack, battle and fend off are widely used by ordinary people in everyday language." 

Many scholars and activists are unhappy with the ubiquity of war metaphors. In particular, they are unhappy with how the metaphors (as expected) apply descriptions of warfighting to non-war contexts in a way that supercharges them and riles up audiences. Much has been written about the use of those metaphors, for example, in health care. Particularly in "biomedicine, including HIV research," the language reflects a "mindset that regards pathogens as enemies to be defeated." Philosopher Susan Sontag is especially critical of the use of the military metaphor in health care, saying “It overmobilizes, it overdescribes, and it powerfully contributes to the excommunicating and stigmatizing of the ill." 

But while the vast majority of analysis on military and warfighting metaphors concludes negatively or at least pessimistically about the practice, some scholars push back against that generalization. Several of the authors both critical of and in defense of military metaphors point out the usefulness of those metaphors in motivating people in times of adversity. What differs, however, is their judgement on whether the use of such figurative language in this way is problematic, and whether it necessarily demonizes or dehumanizes an actual enemy. 

In a research paper released in January of this year, Eunice Castro Seixas takes on the use of war metaphors in political communication around the Covid-19 crisis. Seixas notes that many others have taken on that metaphor critically, suggesting that its use, and the militarization of discourse in general, is a negative thing. Seixas doesn't necessarily disagree that in general, war metaphors probably connote aggression and negativity, or at least the demonization of an enemy. But Seixas concludes a little differently, urging "caution against previous generalized criticisms of the war metaphor as inherently dangerous and damaging." Instead, in certain contexts, the metaphor is constructive and even optimistic without being dehumanizing towards an enemy subject: "the war metaphor is often used for the pursuit of specific goals of crisis communication and management such as: preparing the public for hard times, persuading the population to change their behavior and bolstering resilience and self-efficacy. These are messages that, while using the war metaphor, place the emphasis on adaptation to hard times, rather than on fighting an 'invisible enemy.'" Seixas also acknowledges that it matters where such discourse is used and lands. Germany might reject the use of war metaphors because it is sensitive to being labeled a warlike nation after its role as aggressor in the First and Second World Wars. States rising up out of colonialism, or overcoming apartheid, might be more comfortable with the metaphor because it connects to the optimism of recent liberatory victories. 

Thus, using militaristic language to mobilize people doesn't necessarily mean vilifying an enemy, encouraging violence against specific people, or painting all conflicts as only resolvable through the use of force. What is clear, though, is that war metaphors underscore urgency. In urgent situations, therefore, is it okay to use language that alludes to war? And, does it serve us to use urgency as the starting point of so much discourse, particularly political discourse? 

Asking these questions pushes us deeper into the foundations of our rhetoric than the question of whether we need an enemy. The object of concern now becomes, why do we feel a need to construct everything as urgent? Why do we always feel the need to mobilize ourselves and others? Is this a carry-over from the fight-or-flight patterns that developed in our prehistory? Obviously some things really are urgent, but when we use that urgency as a template for all political activity and progress, is that cause for concern?

Philosophers like Paul Virilio have questioned Western metaphysics and technology and our obsession with speed, acceleration and efficiency, the way everything is defined according to use value. This necessitates further questioning about why everything in politics is so urgent, why we have to solve every problem now. Different thinkers have different answers. For Martin Heidegger, it's "technological thinking" that trades off with a more meditative view of the world. For Marxists and other theorists of capitalism, it's the mechanization and commodification of time as well as alienation of human activity

All of this analysis seems to suggest that we shouldn't reject out of hand any particular metaphorical strategy in political communication, except, of course, strategies that really do dehumanize or degrade other humans. Military mobilization may be appropriate if it doesn't put other people in danger. Calling our struggle against a disease or an economic crisis a "war" might be inelegant, but pragmatic and appropriate. What we should keep an eye out for, though, is whether we are being urgent and alarmist as a default, rather than in response to genuinely urgent and alarming problems. It's okay for us, as political communication practitioners, to point out the times when the drive to urgency is not appropriate. Because sure, our communication strategies are driven by our clients, but there's a reason they come to us for advice. 

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the Chicago Police Department, and Public Communication

When a Chicago cop shot and killed 13 year-old Adam Toledo, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot initially supported CPD's and States Attorneys' declaration that Toledo had been armed. But Adam Toledo did not have a gun in his hand when he was shot, which the video makes clear. Lightfoot's blunder tells us a lot about the difficulties in leaders' public communication when having to speak for, cheerlead, or otherwise defend powerful police forces and their way of doing things. 

New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio's struggles with NYPD are the stuff of legend, and have raised questions about what police are allowed to do in response to criticism from elected officials. Policing itself is political, and the politics of the police clash with the policies of municipal governments in major cities throughout the United States. Lightfoot's relationship with CPD isn’t any different. 

It's unlikely that the Mayor would deliberately lie about this even if she had wanted to appease the CPD. But her response was about as bad as it could be in the wake of such a genuine tragedy. That the murder and Lightfoot's public misstep happened atop a sharp upswing in especially offensive police killings and near-killings, all during the trial of Derek Chauvin for killing George Floyd, only added fuel to the fire. 

Though not the primary issue within this breakdown — policing, generally — it is notably that political communications specialists have continued to fail so atrociously throughout the past year. Importantly, this is related to, rather than separate from, the failures going on in U.S. policing. 

A 152-page report released just eight weeks ago described, as the Washington Post put it, "a plague of communication breakdowns" in the Lightfoot administration. And a brand new story by ProPublica's Mick Dumke describes Lightfoot as impatient and overly critical of well-meaning and admired city leaders like Andre Vasquez, a first-term alderman with a pressing agenda to help homeless and soon-to-be-evicted city residents. In one meeting, the Mayor attacked Vasquez for over a minute in order to minimize his request for emergency rental assistance. Lightfoot said the issue wasn't "a good use of our time," a statement of remarkable arrogance and aloofness coming from someone who ran on a progressive agenda.

But Mayor Lightfoot may be turning a corner after hitting rock bottom on both the shooting of Adam Toledo and another matter: the inexcusably brutal and mistaken police raid at the home of social worker Anjanette Young in 2019 which occurred before Lightfoot took office as Mayor. Cops raided Young's home based on incorrect information. Naked and then partially covered, Young kept insisting they had the wrong place, and they did. A series of misjudgments and mishandlings in the city legal department — which Lightfoot says she was "blindsided" by — soon followed. City attorneys tried to block the video from being shown to the public. Top attorney Mark Flessner was forced to resign. Eventually Young sued both the police and the Mayor, alleging a (very believable) "conspiracy and cover up between the Chicago Police Department, the Chicago Office of Police Accountability and the Mayor’s Office.”

In many ways, Lightfoot's initial response to the police assault of Anjanette Young presaged her response to the shooting of Adam Toledo. But with the Young catastrophe, she has changed course and done so even though she is getting sued and would likely be better off if she were to simply stop talking about it. Skeptics might say that this apology only came when it became clear that Ms. Young intended to sue the city and the CPD. That lawsuit has now commenced. Perhaps this strategy was created to place blame on CPD, which it certainly has coming given its history. Lightfoot has also "falsely said her administration had not received a Freedom of Information Act request from Young." Still, I'm noticing in Lightfoot's language a more open level of contrition. Using words like "deeply sorry" and "humiliation and trauma" make clear the Mayor's intention to read the incident as reality. "It simply should not have happened," Lightfoot said, conceding some ground that might even be used against the city in the lawsuit. 

The Mayor also describes her own interpersonal reaction to the video, which she says she watched "in absolute horror. I showed it to my wife. We both thought about what could happen to us if we were in her circumstance." Even if that's not true, it builds a sense of empathy. Most importantly, Lightfoot says "this happens to Black and Brown people disproportionately." This is an acknowledgement that police brutality is systemic and racist, something that even liberal mayors in large cities have been reluctant to say historically. 

In many ways, the tasks and skills of a successful municipal political candidate don’t always translate to skills in office. For example, being able to effectively communicate with potential voters — maybe with the help of data append services like Accurate Append — doesn’t automatically translate to transparency and accountability during times of crisis or atrocity. What Lightfoot needs is advisors and staff who can keep her accountable to both macro data on the Chicago electorate and micro situations like "reading the room" on fundamental moral issues like policing. 

Importantly, at the root of this all is not Lori Lightfoot’s own investment in changing how policing is done, or how to help struggling Chicagoans, or anything else. It's about whether her constituents can effectively pressure her to advocate for their interests regardless of her own.