Is It Possible to Avoid War Analogies in Politics?

Political commentators are embroiled in a heated discussion of whether or not the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords should lead to changes in how we frame political disagreements; whether the aggressive, martial language employed by Sarah Palin was over the line; and whether more frequent use of such language in the past two years is to blame for the shooting in Tucson Saturday.

According to George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, authors of 2003's "Metaphors we Live By," it may not be possible to avoid war analogies in politics. The semioticians point out that war metaphors are always used in the process of describing arguments and debates. An excerpt from their book, via Yuli Rahmawati's blog:

...let us start with the concept ARGUMENT and the conceptual metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR. This metaphor is reflected in our everyday language by a wide variety of expressions:

Your claims are indefensible.
He attacked every weak point in my argument. His criticisms were right on target.
I demolished his argument.
I've never won an argument with him. You disagree? Okay,Shoot!
If you use that strategy, he'll wipe you out. He shot down all of my arguments.

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. Though there is no physical battle, there is a verbal battle, and the structure of an argument-attack, defense, counterattack, etc.-reflects this. It is in this sense that the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor is one that we live by in this culture; it structures the actions we perform in arguing. Try to imagine a culture where arguments are not viewed in terms of war, where no one wins or loses, where there is no sense of attacking or defending, gaining or losing ground. Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way. In such a culture, people would view arguments differently, experience them differently, carry them out differently, and talk about them differently. But we would probably not view them as arguing at all: they would simply be doing something different. It would seem strange even to call what they were doing "arguing." Perhaps the most neutral way of describing this difference between their culture and ours would be to say that we have a discourse form structured in terms of battle and they have one structured in terms of dance.

From this list of examples, it seems war language pervades our cognitive models of political debate so thoroughly that it would be impossible to rid ourselves of them.

Recommended Reading

Not all of these examples, however, are exclusively martial. The ideas of "attack," "strategy," "win," and "loss" are as common to sports as they are to war...perhaps, as Lakoff and Johnson might say, because we understand sports through war metaphors just as we understand politics through them.

But if we use sports metaphors instead and talk about the "field of play" or just the "field" instead of the "battlefield," have we really done ourselves much of a service? Maybe.

The value, I think, in recognizing the ubiquity of war-related language in politics, is that it puts things in context.

Sarah Palin wasn't doing anything novel when she talked about "reload[ing]" or put crosshairs on legislative districts. She and others simply pushed an existing trope one step farther ... and did so at a time when threats were being made against Democrats. It was enough to make Giffords herself concerned; Giffords said so on national TV when Palin's list came out.

As always, timing and context are everything. I have a feeling most semioticians would agree.