Fighting a disease with metaphors
Author: Milena Podolsak
Last week, the director of health care in the Stockholm region, Björn Eriksson, commented on the ongoing coronavirus pandemic by drawing an analogy. ‘I see COVID-19 as a storm’, he said. ‘We know that it is on its way, but we are unsure of its path and strength. We are hoping for the best, but we are preparing for the worst’ [my translation].
An epidemic is most certainly an actual force of nature, although we seem unable to grasp the microscopic world where such medical battles are unfolding, since it is – after all – inaccessible to our human-scale experience. For us, viruses and cells are abstract.
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, one conceptual metaphor that draws on our direct, everyday experience, stands head and shoulders above the rest in terms of frequency. This is how the Israeli writer David Grossman begins his essay on the coronavirus pandemic: ‘It’s bigger than us, the plague. It’s stronger than every flesh-and-blood enemy we’ve encountered, more powerful than every superhero we’ve conjured up in our imaginations and in the movies.’
That metaphor is already identified in literature as treating disease is waging war and is part of a productive group of war metaphors typical for public discourse. You may recognize some of its political members, such as war against poverty, war on drugs, trade war etc. The war metaphor is so pervasive in public discourse, that according to one study, 17% of all articles in Time Magazine, published between 1981 and 2000, contained at least one war metaphor (Karlberg & Buell, 2005, reported in Flusberg, Matlock & Thibodeau, 2018).
Tiny virus particles and infected cells are currently being identified as our mortal enemy, which we fight on a battlefield that is the human body. Anti-epidemic strategies are war strategies, and self-isolation and treatment is the actual fighting, with antiviral medicines, vaccines and respirators as our weapons. Medical professionals are the army fighting against the viral enemy, and epidemiologists and virologists are senior military personnel. For example, in a Statnews’ article, Dr. Gabriel Leung, dean of medicine at Hong Kong University, is described as ‘a veteran of that city’s battle against the disease’.
The war metaphor is undergoing a global mobilization. An example from China is especially illustrative. Deputy Secretary-General of the Chinese State Council, Ding Xiangyang, declared that the Chinese government ‘mobilized the general public and launched a people's war to jointly fight against the epidemic” [my emphasis]. He also gave a meta-linguistic comment about this: ‘The prevention and control practices prove that it is impossible to achieve success without the participation and cooperation of the people. Therefore, we also refer to it as a "people's war" against the epidemic.’ He also explained why it is a war: ’ Preventing and controlling an epidemic is like fighting a battle. The requirement that people stay at home during the outbreak is like when a government requires civilians to take cover in underground shelters when two armies fight against each other. Doing so will definitely cause inconvenience and discomfort, but failure to do so could mean casualties.’
These examples show both the explanatory and persuasive potential of war metaphors. Flusberg, Matlock & Thibodeau (2018) discuss different reasons for why it is so. Three that are especially interesting in the language of the ongoing pandemic are:
Our knowledge about wars is schematic, with clearly defined elements and relationship between those elements.
Many of us have either first-handed or second-handed experience of war, making it a widespread and shared human experience. Sadly, this extensive knowledge and direct experience make it extremely emotionally charged.
The war metaphor is pervasive because it is a conventional metaphor, which makes it is easier to process cognitively (Bowdle & Gentner, 2005, reported in Flusberg, Matlock & Thibodeau, 2018).
A behavioural study by the same authors showed how war metaphors influence our actions, mainly due to their potential to induce fear. They also mention SARS epidemic as an example of ’emphasizing political dimensions of diseases’ (ibid.), stating however that the effect can sometimes be de-motivating. This is not surprising since fear can also paralyze and induce panic. They also point out that many studies warn of the ubiquity of war metaphors and our potential fatigue with this kind of language. Whether this is the case with the metaphorical war on the corona virus remains to be seen.
In the last couple of weeks, I have been asking myself if we are perhaps witnessing an evolution of the war metaphor, an evolution similar to how the concept of war itself emerged millennia ago. Before any states and organized cities, we humans used to fight one on one, with predators or with each other, or in smaller groups. A war is essentially a build-up on that. It involves our fighting together against an enemy that is also unified in fighting us. In that regard, war as a concept can itself be seen as a target domain made accessible by a source domain fighting. If we look at the language used in war rhetoric, we will recognize much more basic words and expressions from the fighting domain, such as an armed struggle, hitting the enemy hard and striking the final blow. This would explain why the war metaphor is readily used to guide our actions as a whole. It is employed, together with other linguistic and non-linguistic devices, for expressing unity and urgency, in order to make whole societies act as an individual and divert all its resources towards a common goal.
Since a pandemic requires a worldwide action, war metaphors are also being used in uniting the human race against a common enemy. It is in the coming days, weeks and months that we will perhaps see whether we are indeed able to guide our actions not as self-centred states, nations and political unions, but as a globally united human race. Or as David Grossman puts in his essay: ‘For surely, we are all one infectious human fabric, as we are now discovering‘. In the future, it would therefore be interesting to see new studies on the topic, studies that perhaps could investigate if the usage of war metaphors is indeed affected (or maybe unaffected) by the way language is used in the current crisis.
Although Georgios Stampoulidis was supposed to post next, he has kindly let me go before him since this text is related to the current events. I am therefore thanking him and joining in on pointing the finger in his direction!
MetaNet Metaphor Wiki: https://metaphor.icsi.berkeley.edu/pub/en/index.php/Metaphor:DISEASE_TREATMENT_IS_WAR
Bowdle, B. F., & Gentner, D. (2005). The career of metaphor. Psychological Review, 112(1), 193–216. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1037/0033295X.112.1.193
Flusberg, S. J., Matlock, T., & Thibodeau, P. H. (2018). War metaphors in public discourse. Metaphor & Symbol, 33(1), 1-18. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/10926488.2018.1407992
Karlberg, M., & Buell, L. (2005). Deconstructing the “War of all against all”: The prevalence and implications of war metaphors and other adversarial news schema in TIME, Newsweek, and Maclean’s. Journal of Peace and Conflict Studies, 12(1), 22–39.