Painful Truth: Language, war, and the mind

Something I work on in my writing is trying to avoid using war- and conflict-based language when not actually writing about, y’know, war.

Partly this is just to do with trying to write well. (Yes, I am trying to write well. This is what that looks like.) When writing about homelessness or poverty or the environment, I don’t want to automatically slip into conflict-speak. It’s lazy and clichéd.

How many times have you read variations on:

• The war on poverty

• The struggle against homelessness

• The fight to save endangered species

• A long battle with cancer

Go and skim through half a dozen news articles, columns, op-ed page pieces. See how many of them use this kind of language routinely. I try to be mindful of it, and yet I use it constantly.

That’s one of the disturbing things about modern English. We default so easily to words based on violence that I wonder if it affects the way we think about problems in our everyday lives.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is a theory put forward by a pair of early 20th century linguists. There are two versions of it.

The strong version says language determines thought. In other words, if you didn’t have a word for war, you wouldn’t be able to imagine war. If you didn’t have a word for peace, you wouldn’t be able to imagine a state other than war.

The weak version suggests that language shapes and channels our thoughts. Our ideas can burst the banks of language, but like water, they are more likely to flow through the path of least resistance.

That’s why I find the use of fight/struggle/war language so interesting, and so annoying.

Consider that we could use alternative suites of words to describe things which are difficult. We don’t draw metaphors from engineering, from science, or from medicine the way we do from war.

• Building a wealthy society

• Curing homelessness

• Rescuing endangered species

• Resilient in the face of terminal cancer

I can’t say for certain that our language influences the way we deal with our problems, from the personal to the political.

But I do wonder every now and then what channels and floodgates we might open, if we altered our metaphors and harvested from a new linguistic field.