De-Militarizing Language

By David C. Smith | 1997-07-01 12:00:00

Linguistic research over the last quarter century has exposed the influence of language on our thinking patterns and processes. We are seldom aware that the kind of language we use affects our behavior in significant ways. One example of these revelations is the militarization of English over a long period of time. The result is that our conceptual and higher-level thinking is shaped in ways that we might not consciously wish it to be, and that the language we use in some cases may actually prevent us from attaining our goals.

The History of Military Metaphors

Military metaphors have become part of our language over hundreds of years. This has been a normal process, since people tend naturally to draw upon experiences in one area of life in order to give fresh insight and understanding to experiences in another. Think of the language that sailors have brought from the sea to the land ("to know the ropes"), that urban dwellers have adapted from farms ("to put the cart before the horse"), or that people have brought home from their places of work ("to strike while the iron is hot").

Soldiers have had vivid, sometimes traumatic, experiences during military duty that they have then applied to non-military situations. Today, we may ask someone to "spearhead the discussion" or to "get off your high horse." From marching, someone may "get off on the wrong foot" or "mark time"; from strategy, we might "close ranks" or "beat a hasty retreat"; from weapons, we can "cross swords" with an adversary or "look daggers." From the military hierarchy, we refer to "the top brass" or "the rank and file." There are literally hundreds of military metaphors used in everyday speech and writing.

One might well argue that at the relatively shallow level of vocabulary, or even of metaphorical expression, the use of militaristic language is harmless, and serves to make our communication more colorful, more precise and perhaps, as Aristotle claimed, to convey fresh meaning or perspective. Indeed, there are words in use which we do not link at all to their origins with the military establishment (such as "harbinger", someone who went before an army to find accommodation, especially for officers). If no violence or military meaning is associated with the word, surely its use is innocuous. But is the use of military language in our society cause for concern at a deeper level?

Metacognitive Thinking

What has concerned some linguists and philosophers is not the use of military language per se, but patterns of metaphorical thinking at the metacognitive level. In their book, Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson1 give clear examples of such metaphorical thinking. They assert that in English-speaking society we conceive of "argument as war" as shown by the following set of conceptual metaphors:

"Your claims are indefensible."

"He attacked every point in my argument."

"I have lots of ammunition in my arsenal."

"His criticisms were right on target."

"I demolished his argument."

"If you use that strategy, she'll wipe you out."

"You disagree? O.K. Shoot."

"He shot down all my arguments."

While there are many alternative metaphors, we may often think of "love as war":

"She fought for him, but his mistress won out."

"He is slowly gaining ground with her."

"He won her hand in marriage."

"She is besieged by suitors."

"She has to fend them off."

"He made an ally out of her mother."

"He is known for his many conquests."

Both of the overriding ideas that "argument is war" and "love is war" consist of coherent and consistent sets of metaphorical expressions. Such related clusters are referred to as structural metaphors, and it is these metaphors that may become part of our generally unarticulated belief system.

In order to explore these ideas further over the past year, I have been reading and analyzing a variety of newspaper and magazine articles mainly in the areas of politics, economics, environment and health. My analysis has involved the identification of structural metaphors and their supporting evidence. Perhaps I can give one example from the recent federal election campaign, as reported in the Gazette of February 24. Under the headline, "Charest broadsides Liberals" we find the following (The italics are mine.):

"Charest made a blistering attack on the Liberal record."

"He's not targeting the Bloc."

"He has a shot at becoming prime minister."

"Federalist forces could easily rally against separatists."

"He has been an underdog, fighting to keep the politicians in Ottawa honest."

"They played the song, Another One Bites the Dust."

"He devoted his entire speech to attacking the Liberals."

In all, there were 13 military metaphors which supported the structural metaphor, "electoral campaigning as war." In the same article there were three conceptual metaphors supporting the structural metaphor "election campaigning is a race." The dominant metaphor was clearly that of war.

Analysis of articles such as these yields an interesting variety of structural metaphors. However, the dominant theme of war emerges repeatedly: "Politics is war", "Electoral reform is war", "Improvement of the economy is a battle", "Marketing is war", "Environmental protection is a battle", "Medical progress is a battle", etc.

In their book, Language and Peace, Schaffner and Wenden2 assert that structural metaphors like these do not exist in our belief systems as separate ideas, but are related to one another and systematically organized into metaphors at an even higher, ideological level. The metaphor "Life is a (an uphill) battle" would be one such ideological metaphor. In presenting the research of linguists and philosophers over the past ten years, the authors arrive at a number of sobering conclusions.

They conclude that the language of journalists and diplomats frequently represents ideological stances that accept and promote war as a legitimate way of regulating international relations and settling inter-group conflict (legitimization); that language unquestioningly promotes values, sustains attitudes and encourages actions that create conditions that can lead to war (propagation); and that language itself creates the kind of enemy image essential to provoking and maintaining hostility that can help justify war (justification).

Critical Language Education

Recognition of the kind of metaphor contained in the language we use should become part of the education of every person. Schaffner and Wenden write about the need for critical language education in Language and Peace. The elements of such education might include the following:

  1. Develop an awareness of metaphorical language. The study of metaphor could be introduced at the elementary level, beginning with simple examples (such as White Tiger Kung Fu, Blockbuster Video, Arrow Taxi, Check-Mate Investigations), and proceeding to more sophisticated ones at the secondary and tertiary levels. We already study metaphor in poetry and novels; to study its use in political and other discourse would create an understanding of the way in which language reflects ideologies and can influence the exercise of power.
  2. Develop skills in decoding metaphorical language. One model of formal analysis is to identify conceptual and structural metaphors and "map" the latter by showing the intended parallels between the structural metaphor and the issues under discussion. This can then provide the basis for a critical summary of the mode of metaphorical reasoning.3
  3. Recognize the limitations of metaphors. Sure, metaphors are helpful in enlarging our understanding of something we may already be familiar with, yet the system that allows us to comprehend one aspect of a concept in terms of another (for example, argument in terms of war) will necessarily hide some aspects of the concept. There may well be aspects of argument that are inconsistent with war. We may lose sight of the opportunities for cooperation in an argument, of sharing viewpoints that do not support our own position, or of learning from the points raised by the other person.
  4. Become more self-critical to enhance communication skills. Many kinds of discourse use metaphorical language that is inconsistent with the purpose of the speakers or writers. A simple example is the one-page article on influenza that includes 13 conceptual metaphors to support the structural metaphor, "preventing flu is war."4 The mental set of the person who accepts the article is to fight the flu. However, the article concludes with the contrary advice, "Finally, remember to be a nice person; studies have shown that feelings of hostility reduce immune system levels, while being at peace with your world will actually increase your body's ability to resist infection." We need to ensure that the language we use is consistent with the message we wish to convey.
  5. Encourage creativity through the use of alternative metaphors. Suppose instead of thinking about argument in terms of war, we were to think of argument as a pleasing, graceful dance.5 How would such a metaphor cause us to conceptualize argument in a different way? It is initially difficult for us to accept such a creative challenge, because the present cultural metaphor gets in the way of conceiving argument in terms other than war. We may even conclude that thinking of argument in terms of dance produces a concept that is not argument at all. That is precisely the power of metaphors to control and limit our thinking; yet it is also their power to create a breakthrough (military metaphor intended) to renew and reconstruct.

1 G. Lakoff, and M. Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1980.
2 Christina Schaffner and Anita Wenden (Editors), Language and Peace, Dartmouth Publishing Company, 1995.
3 Tim Adamson, Greg Johnson, Tim Rohrer and Howard Lam, "Metaphors We Ought Not Live By: Rush Limbaugh in the Age of Cognitive Science", Paper distributed publicly over the Internet, University of Oregon, Department of Philosophy, 1997.
4 Kerry Campbell, "Beat the Flu Bug: Get Vaccinated", We Care Home Health Services News, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1996.
5 Lakoff and Johnson, ibid.

David Smith is a Professor of Education in the Department of Values and Culture at McGill University.

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1997

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1997, page 14. Some rights reserved.

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