COVID Impact: War Metaphors and Combative Language
by Chris Lundquist
on April 15, 2020
by Chris Lundquist
on April 15, 2020
Language can have a major effect on how our messages are received, as anyone who has spent hours deciding whether “pleased” or “thrilled” better fits a press release can attest. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses and brands are striving to express authentic compassion, but another language choice has also seen an uptick in usage: war metaphors.
President Trump was among the first to do so, declaring that, “Our big war is not a … financial war … it’s a medical war. And we have to win this war.” U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron made similar analogies soon afterward.
This kind of language is evocative, and proponents would likely argue it helps signal the gravity of the situation to the public. But could it actually be doing more harm than good?
Wars End, but COVID-19 Could Be Here to Stay
This isn’t the first time we’ve declared war against an idea. We’ve fought the “War on Poverty,” the “War on Drugs,” and most recently the “War on Terror.” It would be tough to argue, however, that any of these wars have been won. Poverty, the illicit drug trade, and terrorism are all still realities of modern life.
Traditional wars end, whether by treaty or when one side gives up. That’s part of why war metaphors are effective at galvanizing people—they sell us on the idea that we can triumph over the challenge and that things will eventually return to normal.
Wars on concepts rarely work out so neatly. There is no clear signal that the fight is over, especially with COVID-19. Infectious disease experts suspect that there may not be an obvious end in sight for the pandemic. It’s not clear how long social distancing mandates will need to remain in place to effectively slow the spread of the virus. And even if a vaccine is successfully developed for the current strain, it’s difficult to predict whether the virus will eventually mutate and reduce the vaccine’s effectiveness (a trait of other coronaviruses like influenza).
By framing the fight against COVID-19 as a war, leaders may be setting us up for frustration if ‘winning’ turns out to be impossible. In a global public health crisis, where the cooperation of quite literally every single person on the planet counts, we should avoid misrepresenting the nature of the challenge.
It’s Time to Stay Home, Not to Mobilize for War
War metaphors are typically used to spur action. When you hear “join the fight,” it’s hard not to think of Rosie the Riveter heading off to the factory to support the allies in World War II.
But “getting out and doing something” is exactly what hundreds of millions of Americans currently living under stay-at-home orders can’t do. Countless healthcare professionals and other essential workers are going above and beyond to save lives, treat those affected by the virus, and keep society running. For the rest of us, the best thing we can do is limit our contact with others to help limit the virus’ spread.
Sitting still isn’t most people’s idea of helping the cause, but it’s society’s best bet right now. Leaders should focus on messages centered on helping everyone adjust to our new reality—not suggesting we’ll all be on the march soon.
Hurting Rather Than Helping
There’s evidence that applying war terminology to medical and health issues may cause problems. Phrases like “battling cancer” or “winning the fight against cancer,” for example, were common long before COVID-19. But researchers have found that using war-related language actually seems to make cancer patients feel their treatment will be more difficult, and could even reduce their motivation to make healthy behavior a priority. Painting a bleak, warlike picture with language leads to some patients adopting a fatalistic mindset.
COVID-19 is its own unique challenge, but it’s not unthinkable that similar effects could occur. One of the intentions behind war metaphors is motivation, but they could actually be having the opposite effect—demoralizing some of those afflicted with the virus, and maybe even negatively impacting national morale.
We need new ways of talking about COVID-19 that avoid the pitfalls of war analogies. No one is exempt here, whether business, brand, or public official. There might be some stumbling at first, given how common these metaphors are. One option may be framing our collective response in terms of what we can do for each other, rather than what we can do against the “enemy.” Given the steady stream of stories about some Americans not taking COVID-19 social distancing orders seriously, this might be the best place to start.
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