The war on terror. The war on poverty. The war on drugs. The fight/struggle/war with cancer. On AIDS. On global warming.
War, fighting, and struggle are the dominant metaphors we use to talk about a host of issues in our society that have nothing to do with violence. And I’m starting to wonder what that says about us, and about the way we approach those problems in the first place.
This first started to bother me when I saw a few people complaining about the way individuals dealing with cancer are referred to.
We talk about “a long fight” or “a lengthy struggle” with cancer.
While there is no doubt that there are things you can do to decrease your risk of getting cancer, and that there are some things you can do to try to aid your own recovery, you don’t really fight cancer.
We try to cure cancer with scientific means developed over the last century and a half, from the first crude surgeries to modern therapies that are using exotic elements such as genetically modified polio viruses.
But it’s not a war. Science has little in common with battle, and the resilience and bravery necessary for a cancer patient is not the same kind as that needed when facing guns and shellfire.
Other war metaphors are even less apt.
A war on poverty? When we try to end poverty – child poverty, homelessness, seniors living in poverty, anything – we are not destroying. We are explicitly building. We are giving people food, education, housing, better social structures. It’s the exact opposite of war, yet that metaphor is still thrown around frequently.
You can see something similar when people talk of the fight against global warming. Again, there are no battlefields or generals in the war on climate change. There are debates, there are education campaigns, there is a great deal of diplomacy. There is struggle, but it’s a struggle to find new ways of doing things that will allow us to stop polluting the atmosphere without gutting our economy.
The most disturbing use of the term may be in the war on drugs.
The war on drugs is certainly a lot more literal than the other kinds of metaphorical fights. It does involve soldiers, and in many places, police with the same weapons and tactics as soldiers.
But if it can possibly be justified in some situations – a multi-millionaire drug dealer with a private army isn’t going to just quietly come along in handcuffs – it is grossly inappropriate in other circumstances.
Helping people overcome addiction is not a battle. It’s a healing process. It’s a process of bringing people back into a community. It’s helping them free themselves from chemical slavery.
Calling it the war on drugs, framing it that way, makes too many people into enemies. When the enemy is cancer, that’s one thing – who doesn’t hate cancer? But when it’s people, whether dealers or addicts, it’s dangerously simplistic.
Frankly, I’d like to see some more metaphors for all of these problems. Words are how we frame the world. Our choice of words shows what we think is important. Words matter.
We can talk about war and fights and battles, or we can talk about building, healing, reaching for solutions.
No war on poverty, but building dignity. No war on cancer, but a cure for sickness. No war on drugs, but a hand to those in need.