war metaphor part i

“This is not language, this is the way people think.”
George Lakoff

There is no way that I possess any authority to say that as a culture we are obsessed with conflict and war and combat. What I have heard, and have seen, and am probably too keenly aware of have colored and/or tainted my thoughts on what I’m about to share. I have a lot of thoughts on this so my plan is to lay some foundation and the dig in with some meat a little later. We’ll see how that goes.

Since my college days, having spent many an evening lying on the floor by the fireplace reading about personality and ego and cognition, I’ve been captivated by all things unconscious. In particular, I have a fascination with our words and our figures of speech, our entire lexicon and the way that we choose (or often don’t choose) to describe people and places and things.

There is so much that you can learn about a culture just by studying words. Cultures that live in the isolated north and understand the cold and ice and snow have many more words for describing these things; they can say in one word what we might say as “light, fluffy snow falling in large flakes.” Understanding snow and weather conditions are critically important to their survival. I would be willing to be however, they have fewer words for money than we do, but more on that later.

For those of you that follow Rob Bell, you may have heard him make reference to something similar in a Nooma Video (002 – Flame) when he talks about love. Bell says that he loves his wife and also loves tacos. For the record, I completely relate; the best is when my wife and I get to eat together at Taqueria Mexico on South Blvd (much like we did today). In essence, Bell says that the words we use can provide great insight into internal processes and thoughts and feelings.

In reading another author (Don Miller, Blue like Jazz), I got reminded of a train of thought I started to have a number of years ago. Miller references the use of metaphor in various parts of our life – one example: the use of war metaphor with respect to dealing with cancer. These thoughts were presented by a professor at an alumni group gathering and Miller was captivated. The essence of the discussion as it was described was that we often use war-centric words when discussing cancer: we battle cancer, we combat cancer, we fight it. This implied conflict has actually been shown to make the process of dealing with cancer more difficult as it induces more stress in patients. The professor argued that it makes the emotional response more intense than it need be and people often forget the fact that the majority of people survive the disease.

As a caveat here, no one is saying that cancer ought not to be treated seriously, only that the metaphor we have come to use to convey the weight of this disease carries with it collateral baggage and that it would be nice if a more appropriate and helpful metaphor could take it’s place.

War metaphor is everywhere. Back to the cancer example, the British Medical Journal wrote about the War Against Cancer in 1934. It is all over science where we here about “invading species”, “biosecurity”, “killer cells”, and “methods for attacking viruses.” We hear it in sports when “epic battles” or “showdown of the century” are scheduled as pay-per-view events. Bush, Rumsfield, Cheney, and the gang quickly turned what was first referred to as a crime on 9/11 into a declaration of war and the ensuing 9 years have been framed as such ever since.

An author that I am quickly becoming interested in, thanks to my newfound interest in linguistics is George Lakoff, an expert on all things language (two books are on the way as I write – I’m sure I’ll have some follow up, providing I can find the time to read them).

He wrote an incredibly compelling article just 5 days after 9/11.

As a child in New Jersey, the NY city skyline was a major part of his life and as a cognitive linguist he finds deep meaning in the words that we use as individuals an culture to describe both the buildings and the events that took them down and he can describe the physical, neural circuitry that undergirds this meaning.

The article as a whole, though obviously biased politically, is incredibly insightful. Click here for a long, but really good, read.

Lakoff does say that the Administration searched for metaphors to help them understand this event – the first response was that of framing the event as a crime, which connects to various parts of our consciousness as involving criminals, justice, courts, lawyers, innocence/guilt. Hours later though, the event was reframed as an act of war, which brings it’s own imagery: “casualties”, “enemies”, “military action”.

What I don’t want to do here is turn this into a commentary about the response to 9/11. The implications pointed out in this article with respect to war metaphor are what really interests me as we’ll need them to frame some later discussion.

War implies good and evil, correct and incorrect, right and wrong. It is only evil that can “justify” the expense, the collateral damage, the death that is associated with war. Lakoff says this:

If our enemy is evil, we are inherently good. Good is our essential nature and what we do in the battle against evil is good. Good and evil are locked in a battle, which is conceptualized metaphorically as a physical fight in which the stronger wins. Only superior strength can defeat evil, and only a show of strength can keep evil at bay. Not to show overwhelming strength is immoral, since it will induce evildoers to perform more evil deeds because they’ll think they can get away with it … Nothing is more important than the battle of good against evil …

My two cents here is that “war” is the ultimate polarizer. We can come to the table to discuss if we are any closer but war occurs when two factions helplessly diametrically opposed to one another.

Lakoff goes on to suggest that if we operate outside of this good and evil paradigm there are many facets to any issue and that invoking war metaphor stations us to think in terms or either/or.

Now would be a good time to stop and breathe.



There are times when the use of war metaphor is appropriate and times when its use has unfortunate results. At RealitySandwich.com you can read about several such instances that are in the latter category. For example, one “invading” blackberry (oooooh, scary) was held responsible for hurting a Californian bird population. Scientists argue that war metaphor causes us to think in terms of eradication instead of exploring more helpful symbiotic relationships. In fact, some even say that this is why a former president decided to merge the government department responsible for “invasive species” into the department of homeland security.

So what do we know?

War metaphor is prevalent. It’s sometimes appropriate; other times, it’s not. When it’s used, our culture, our neurons, our experience, our relationships all contribute to the way that we frame the situation at hand. We have a conscious awareness of what war means but, perhaps more profoundly, we have a deeply-seeded unconscious understanding as well that invokes imagery of good and evil, justification, victory, defeat, and collateral damage.

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations …. or I’m sorry.

Here is where I’m really interested in going with this next. I grew up in a church whose very structure and existence was built around the concept of war metaphor, the ultimate in good versus evil, God vs. Satan, sinfulness vs. righteousness. I understand the mechanism by which our churches arrive at war metaphor, and I’m really interested as to whether or not the church is an appropriate home for these concepts of war – that’s up next.


  1. “This is not language, this is the way people think.” I like it. I believe it. Good post.

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