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.