Friday, 24 July 2009

War As Metaphor

I'm going to take a simple phrase almost entirely out of context, but nevertheless, even within that context it is still a proof text for my point. Bear with me.
Want to know how to win a culture war? Don’t fight one. The soul of our nation has been marred from a perpetual state of culture war. In an Orwellian twist, each camp relies on conflict with their supposed enemies for the perpetuation of their own existence. The culture warrior’s clout, influence, fundraising, and organizing is based upon real or perceived attacks from the other side. These “threats” and boogeymen are their oxygen, and without them, they die.
"How to Win a Culture War" - Jim Wallis, 23 July 2009

My problem here is not with Wallis' column, although that has enough argument for its own time, my problem is with the ongoing metaphor of war as the description of any kind of conflict or struggle. It's not enough to enforce the law on drugs, it has to be a war on drugs. It's not enough to have cultures that argue with each other, it has to be a culture war... and so on. My problem is with the cognitive framing associated with the metaphor of war. As soon as the situation is described in this way, all thought is forced to engage with it within those terms. If it is a war then there are tactics, friendly fire, collatoral damage, the enemy, the necessary sacrifices by the citizenry - all in the name of the war.

In a classic Orwellian way (to steal Orwell back from the quote), by speaking about it as war we think about it as war and will ultimately try to solve it with a warlike strategy. In the end, there is only one activity in a war: kill the opposition. As soon as the other side stops opposing, we can stop killing them. Perhaps it is too obvious even to state it, but let's do it anyway. Soldiers are trained to kill. The telos of a soldier is the violent cessation of the opposing activity.

The metaphor itself guides the participants towards only one kind of conclusion. Only the total obliteration of the opposing other is permissable. By labelling something as a war, all other options are unacceptable. Anyone who does that has already made their position clear.

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