Sunday, February 9, 2020

The Attack on War Metaphors!

Whether or not communication is really a kind of warfare by other means, we often talk casually as if it were. Take the title of this blog post, for example. My topic is literally criticism of the way we use war metaphors to talk about communication, but instead of titling this post "criticism of war metaphors" I did what many headline writers would do. I spiced it up by using a war metaphor ("attack") that calls up the conceptual metaphor, ARGUMENT IS WAR.

My use of a war metaphor to describe criticism of war metaphors was intended to be ironically funny (note the silly exclamation point!), but this feeble attempt at humor may be easy to miss.

Maybe that's partly because metaphors of war and violence are so common in everyday metatalk we hardly notice them. "He blew up the meeting!" "She shot down his plan!" "We'll battle it out!" Any situation that involves opposition or even exerting effort can be framed metaphorically as a war. Public discourse is full of war metaphors: "The war on cancer!" "The battle against climate change!" "We'll fight to the death for affordable health care!" "Trump lashes out at (fill in the blank)!"

Critics worry that as our image of communication is influenced by constant exposure to these violent metaphors, our communication actually becomes more vitriolic and warlike in general. This criticism of the overuse of war metaphors is nothing new. Sociolinguist Deborah Tannen's popular 1998 book on the subject was titled The Argument Culture: Stopping America's War of Words. Tannen described "a pervasive warlike atmosphere that makes us approach public dialogue, and just about anything we need to accomplish, as if it were a fight." She went on:
The argument culture urges us to approach the world--and the people in it--in an adversarial frame of mind. It rests on the assumption that opposition is the best way to get anything done: The best way to discuss an idea is to set up a debate; the best way to cover news is to find spokespeople who express the most extreme, polarized views and present them as "both sides"; the best way to settle disputes is litigation that pits one party against the other; the best way to begin an essay is to attack someone; and the best way to show you're really thinking is to criticize. (pp. 3-4)
It can be hard to talk about argument without using war metaphors. In their book, Metaphors We Live By (1980), language theorists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson showed that our concept of ARGUMENT is systematically structured by the conceptual metaphor, ARGUMENT IS WAR. (By the way, the convention of writing metaphorical concepts in ALL CAPS comes from Lakoff and Johnson.) Noting everyday expressions like "your claims are indefensible," "I demolished his argument," and "I've never won an argument with him," Lakoff and Johnson claimed that these expressions are more than just a metaphorical way of speaking because the war metaphor literally structures the concept and practice of argument in our culture. As they wrote,
It is important to see that we don't just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lose arguments. We see the person we are arguing with as an opponent. We attack his positions and we defend our own. We gain and lose ground. We plan and use strategies. If we find a position indefensible, we can abandon it and take a new line of attack. Many of the things we do in arguing are partially structured by the concept of war. (p. 4)
"Partially structured" is a key qualification. If our concept and practice of argument were totally structured by the concept of war, there would be no distinction at all between argument and physical combat, and there would be no way to talk, for example, about the logical difference between arguments from authority and arguments from personal experience. We can also use different metaphors to talk about argument. For example, we "construct" arguments and "buttress" them with evidence so they won't "fall apart." This is the conceptual metaphor, ARGUMENTS ARE BUILDINGS (Lakoff and Johnson, p. 46). We can also think of arguments as games, rituals, and other relatively peaceful sorts of things. However, the predominance of war metaphors is undeniable.

Is this really a problem? Can talking about communication in metaphors of war and violence actually make our world more warlike and violent? Tannen's description of the argument culture and Lakoff and Johnson's theory of conceptual metaphors both seem to suggest that war metaphors are a contributing factor. 

If violent language is part of the problem, then language reform might be part of the solution. Peace linguists like the Brazilian scholar Francisco Cardoso Gomes de Matos advocate "humanizing" language education--teaching ways of speaking that promote nonviolence and human dignity. 

Promoting peaceful language sounds like a good idea, but language reform efforts should be based on a realistic understanding of how metaphors work in communication. A recent review of the academic literature on war metaphors concludes that they can have positive as well as negative consequences depending on how they are used and in what context. Talking about a "war on climate change" or a "war on cancer" can be an effective, easily understood way to structure people's thinking and motivate action on an issue:  
We have argued that war metaphors are commonplace in public discourse in part because they tap into basic and widely shared schematic knowledge that efficiently structures our ability to reason about any situation involving opposing sides (at any level of abstraction). What’s more, the vivid emotional valence associated with war can quickly activate a sense of urgency and anxiety, which may motivate further action under some circumstances (at least in the short term). [...]
However ... there are potential dangers with the war framing. It may be ineffective or even harmful in some situations, for instance, for cancer patients with no hope of survival, or if framed in an overly negative way or emphasized over a long period of time. The war framing may also work well in some cultures but not in others. Therefore, our final suggestion is that communicators should be prepared to articulate the specific ways in which the target domain is like a war, and the ways in which it is not. If needed, they should be ready to replace the war frame with a different metaphoric message. (Flusberg, Matlock & Thibodeau, 2018, p. 11)
Although war metaphors can be ineffective or harmful in some situations, the available evidence doesn't show that the use of war metaphors is making society more violent or contentious in general.  To win the battle against communication that promote hatred, violence, and literal war, we must find the right targets to attack. We must hunt the devil.


Flusberg, S. J., Matlock, T., & Thibodeau, P. H. (2018). War metaphors in public discourse. Metaphor and Symbol, 33(1), 1-18. doi: 10.1080/10926488.2018.1407992

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tannen, D. (1998). The argument culture: Stopping America's war of words. New York: Random House.


  1. I really enjoy reading this post, clever and funny. I have been thinking about the same thing in the current context where the coronavirus in China was framed, both in official and public discourses, as a "war" on the virus. It made me wondering what's been foregrounded and what's been concealed (or dismissed) in this kind of framing. It seems to me that the war metaphors (at least in the Chinese context) in public discourse activate a sense of collectiveness (e.g., we're all together fighting for this) and a justification of sacrifice (for the common/public good) in addition to the activation of a sense of urgency and anxiety you mentioned in the post.

    It also made me wondering what social-political functions are being fulfilled and whose interests are being served through the framing of war metaphors in public discourse. In the Chinese case, the collective fight and sacrifice are justified while individual needs and desires (and emotions) are made to be illegitimate at the time of "war." It seems nothing matters in front of the war except obeying "military orders" from the government. Individual rights of all kinds can thus rightfully be suspended.

    Also I found this war metaphors very prevalent in my research of media coverages of US-China trade disputes. I am inclined to think that these war metaphors are problematic and I question the "usefulness" of framing disputes as war. I wondered whether these war metaphors are used as a strategy to "win the argument" (as a metadiscourse about how we should communicate when we have a dispute) and/or as an attempt to construct and persuade the public about the situation (or reality) we are dealing with (THE WAR!!). No matter what, I agree that peaceful language education won't solve the problem! I would like to call for more reflexive communication in which we don't get carried away from all the important things we need to communicate by these war metaphors. In another way, we cannot let these war framing to be the only frames that structure our understanding of the social world; we need effective counter-frames!

    1. Thanks for your comment. It's interesting to see this issue from a Chinese perspective. Whose interests are being served by the use war metaphors is a great question. Often it may have a lot to do with commercial promotion and attention-getting if war metaphors attract eyeballs to content. But when governments and other political actors use them to mobilize followers, other interests may be served. This is a question to explore. And yes, we need counter-frames! They are out there, so let's find them and see how they work.