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Journalists, linguists, and lexicographers on the problems with martial metaphors for COVID-19

Since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, journalists have compared efforts to manage it to the First World War, the Second World War, and 9/11. In the Toronto Star, Katie Daubs wrote about lessons offered by Second World War veterans. In an opinion piece in the Star, investigative journalist Julian Sher noted how the “first casualty of war” in the COVID-19 world is the truth. The CBC’s Murray Brewster, a former war correspondent, compared the sacrifices Canadians would have to make during the pandemic with previous generations’ experiences during the Second World War.

Political leaders have also drawn on war-themed references and metaphors in their speeches. Queen Elizabeth II evoked a Second World War-era song, “We Will Meet Again,” to muster her subjects’ courage as cases surged in the U.K. in spring 2020. Justin Trudeau addressed the country on “the fight against COVID” while delivering a speech last September. Donald Trump declared himself a “wartime president,” and New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo declared war on the virus.

Martial metaphors have permeated medicine and health science for centuries. In Western medicine, military language dates back at least to the 17th century, when John Donne, the English poet, compared his fatal ailment—stomach cancer—to a “cannon shot” and a “siege.” Similarly, Thomas Sydenham, who authored Observationes Medicae, an essential manual of medicine, used terms and phrases such as “battle” and “attack the enemy” to illustrate the seriousness of treating an illness. In the 19th century, Louis Pasteur, who discovered how medical science could prevent sicknesses through vaccination, wove the language of war into the practice of medicine by using words like “invasion” and “attack” for germs. Today, physical and metaphorical wars continue to shape how we perceive the struggle to overcome illnesses.

While such charged terminology evokes the gravity of the pandemic, some linguists contend that war metaphors are limiting and, in some cases, harmful.

Lisa Keranen, an associate professor and chair of the department of communication at the University of Colorado Denver, notes that the word “metaphor” comes from the Greek root meaning “transference”; metaphors transfer meanings to create a comparison between two different ideas. Framing disease with martial metaphors is a cultural commonplace, a “widely circulating and taken-for-granted way of speaking and thinking,” she says. However, in her view, using martial language to describe illness reduces patients to metaphorical battlefields on which physicians face their pathological enemies. It can create a false sense of nationalism that pits one population against another at a time when global cooperation is needed to curb the spread of the virus. The problem with using excessive war metaphors is that “it smuggles in a host of other assumptions,” she says. “Sometimes the metaphor appropriately captures a sense of urgency, and at other times, it may not be an apt descriptor.”

As such, the Fourth Estate falls short when we parrot politically charged and emotionally driven war language to rouse the public. We are not in an actual war, nor do we have an enemy with a sophisticated nationalistic agenda. To put it bluntly, when we marry martial metaphors with the COVID-19 pandemic, we mislead people.

Shree Paradkar, the Toronto Star’s race and gender columnist and first internal ombudsperson, says that martial language had its place at the outset of the pandemic—it suggested a sense of urgency. War metaphors carry a sense of unity and a higher calling, Paradkar says, but that started to devolve quickly. The martial language should have ended with the description of quarantine as a “lockdown,” but it continued to gain momentum with words like “home front,” and “frontline workers,” now to the point where we have established a need for an enemy. The virus, she says, “is too vague and not tangible as an enemy, so we turned to the traditional enemy, China.”

According to Paradkar, the need to have an enemy started with Trump dubbing the virus the “Wuhan virus” and the “China virus.” He characterized Chinese people as backward, criticizing them for eating bats. This gave way to several unsubstantiated theories, including that the Chinese government created the virus in a lab. Yet when it was ravaging Europe, the North American media never othered Italy or Spain. “There were petitions in schools to stop all travel to China, people stopped going to Chinese restaurants, and Chinese retailers got harassed, but we never had the same treatment for Italy. Nobody said, ‘Let’s stop going to Italian restaurants,’” adds Paradkar. “In this situation, we see the selectiveness of the enemy.”

She further observes that ideally, metaphors and clarity in the language should not present an opposition. “Language can be limited, so metaphors help,” she says. But she also promptly notes that a war metaphor should not be the gold standard. Paradkar also says that the overuse of the martial allegories like “home front” and “frontline workers” makes them clichés. Remaining skeptical, Paradkar says that she doubts if many Canadian journalists would stop to reassess the war metaphors critically, which proves that the Fourth Estate needs reminding its entire raison d’être is to counterbalance the hegemonic frames.

At first glance, describing an event as a war to be fought might seem to unite the public against a common challenger. But with time and overuse, that effect can wear off, Paradkar argues. While media framing, including the use of metaphors, helps us make sense of the world, notes Aziz Douai, a journalism professor at the University of Regina and the dean of graduate studies and research, the language of journalism can evolve. The way media characterize an event “privileges a specific interpretation of reality,” he says, and the effectiveness of war as a metaphor is not universal.

The use of war metaphors can give politicians exceptional powers in a crisis and they can potentially disrupt the democratic system

Whether it is an actual war or a metaphorical one, Paradkar notes, the ubiquitous regurgitation of political and martial language by the press often creates a need and then fulfills the very need for having an enemy. In the lead-up to the declaration of the Iraq War in 2003, for example, the Bush administration defined the war as a necessity to fight terrorism, he says. Back then, news reports by the U.S. news media companies like CNN, Fox, and MSNBC ultimately became controversial for their pro-war bias and military propaganda. But as U.S. casualties and other losses mounted, Aziz says, differing views identified the Iraq War as a reckless foreign intervention. For those opposed to or disillusioned with the war, martial language is not necessarily unifying.

Much like Paradkar, linguist Elena Semino from, Lancaster University in the U.K. notes that while war terminology may have been helpful to communicate the gravity of the virus at the pandemic’s outset, it could also incite aggression toward perceived guilty parties, such as officials in China, who hesitated to warn the world about the virus. Keranen agrees, stating that by describing COVID-19 as war, political leaders run the risk of pitting one country against another and stoking anti-Chinese racism as well.

Research shows that racist rhetoric skyrocketed under the Trump administration and that the U.S. became more hostile to Chinese-Americans during the pandemic. As noted in the Stop AAPI Hate Youth Campaign, a recent student-led study that details expressions of hate against Asian-American and Pacific Islanders, over 68 percent of respondents said they experienced verbal harassment between March 2020 and February 2021. The report also found that women reported incidents of hate two times more than men. To most BIPOC women and those who identify as women, it rang clear that white America was again too cowardly to call out another white man’s racist bents.

Similarly, Canada is not immune to racist rhetoric either; there has also been an uptick in anti-Chinese and anti-East Asian racism here during the pandemic. According to a recent Angus Reid study in which over 500 Chinese-Canadians participated, 50 percent said they were called names as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. Another 43 percent stated they had been threatened or intimidated. Additionally, 30 percent reported seeing more discriminatory graffiti or social media messages during the early days of the pandemic. Lastly, 29 percent maintained that offensive incidents made them feel as if they were a threat to other’s well-being.

Moreover, the Trump administration’s inclination to blame others has also sparked an isolationist attitude. For instance, in mid-April 2020, the Trump administration prevented 3M from sending protective medical gear to Canada. Semino says that even the U.K. and the U.S. compete to outdo each other and other countries, which stems from human “selfishness that we all probably share, but may result in vaccine nationalism.”

Another Lancaster linguist and professor, Veronika Koller, also warns that the use of war metaphors can give politicians exceptional powers in a time of crisis. In doing so, they can potentially disrupt the democratic system and redefine “the relationship between voters and their elected representatives [to] a hierarchy of command (government) and obey (general public).” For instance, when the U.S. became the hardest-hit country, with a record of 83,000 COVID-19 cases, in mid-April last year, the Trump administration sought to militarize the pandemic by deploying U.S. troops at the Canada-U.S. border to stop the spread of the virus by undocumented border-crossers. Trudeau and deputy prime minister Chrystia Freeland opposed this tactic, claiming it could damage Canada-U.S. relations.

Correspondingly, Tony Thorne, a language consultant at King’s College London, U.K., says that something more insidious might lie buried under the seemingly benign use of martial metaphors. “Those dominating the discourse are trying to arouse nationalist sentiments” to benefit from global panic, he suggests, or “to distract the public from their failures to contain the situation.”

Shree Paradkar says another drawback of using war meta­phors is extensive policing of certain people and communities. Martial language depicts the COVID-19 pandemic as an uncommon situation, encouraging the notion that people must accept “exceptional policies,” much like after 9/11, she argues.

While some people rightfully received fines for holding parties during the Christmas and Diwali celebrations, bylaw officers also fined homeless people $880, says Paradkar. There has been some contextual, nuanced reporting that impoverished neighbourhoods in Toronto, like Jane and Finch, are hard-hit because of socio-economic conditions, not because of a cultural issue, she says. News reporters subsequently dubbed areas like Jane and Finch as front lines or battlegrounds. She mentions that said trend is not specific to Toronto; in Montreal, predominantly Black neighbourhoods had the highest rate of COVID-19 infections, according to a report from CBC. She says that Black, Indigenous, working-class, and racialized minorities were subsequently seen with suspicion by police.

She urges journalists to employ reason and compassion when using a wartime lens to report on these neighbourhoods, as essential workers cramped in multi-generational homes reside there.

Such language also influences civilian interactions. According to Koller, “a war scenario casts actors in particular roles.” A battle paradigm demands death, and many front-line workers have been celebrated for their sacrifices during the pandemic. While health care professionals might have a similar sense of duty to those fighting an enemy on a battlefield, they are not soldiers, Semino observes. Being inundated with martial metaphors might have seemed to justify the struggles many health care professionals have faced and continue to face as they deal with staff and equipment shortages. Young doctors and nurses with incomplete training and retired professionals were called in and often risked their lives without proper equipment, says Keranen.

In September 2020, Amnesty International noted that over 7,000 health workers had died after contracting COVID-19. Thousands of medical students in Europe were fast-tracked into early service to help contain the virus. In some corners, these efforts were exalted: the Journal of the American Medical Association and The New York Times, for instance, applauded the heroic sacrifices of medical staff and students. However, the global press’s use of martial rhetoric also reinforces the thrust of selective heroism. This does not come as a critique of the medical staff who have braved this storm; rather, it’s a question for journalists: Those who self-isolate or heed the social-distancing laws aren’t heroic enough? Or is the loss of life the only sound gauge to achieve said valour? In a pandemic, martial language steers us all away from critical analysis. “Warmongers excuse deaths as collateral damage, which makes our essential workers seem expendable,” says Keranen. This tendency is especially problematic as it focuses attention on those who gave their lives to help others while shifting attention away from political leaders’ actions—or lack thereof.

By describing COVID-19 as war, political leaders risk pitting one country against another and stoking anti- Chinese racism as well

But some journalists find value in the conflict analogy. Julian Sher, an investigative journalist, author, and former senior producer at CBC’s The Fifth Estate, deems the hero and conflict analogy fitting. Sher, who recently returned from Afghanistan, where he was filming a war documentary, views the coronavirus as a “killer,” and says that conflict metaphors do justice to stories describing efforts to eradicate it. To him, not all wars are bad, and if a hostile enemy invades one’s home, there is no choice but to fight back. And, like soldiers in military conflicts, front line workers are sacrificing themselves to protect the general public. Health care professionals, he says, are “risking their lives to save us and doing something good for society.” He agrees that war metaphors can be limited; where they fall short, he says, is that the novel coronavirus is not a human enemy with a strategic military plan. Viruses replicate and infect hosts indiscriminately. While not humanity’s first pandemic, Sher maintains that we’ve never faced “an enemy” quite like this before. Of political leaders who seek to politicize the pandemic and pharmaceutical companies that not who are profiting from it, Sher says, “Not everyone in this war is a hero.”

John Donnelly, a defence reporter and the president of the U.S.-based Military Reporters and Editors Association, also favours war metaphors. Like many, he feels they offer a sense of unity; in the face of an enemy, a war metaphor “unites people” in combat. The danger, Donnelly says, is when the use of military language inadvertently places the onus on patients to fight the virus and paints those who succumb to it as losers. Similar criticisms, he says, have long been made about characterizing cancer patients as people losing a battle, given the outcome is one they cannot control. Like Donnelly, Jila Ghomeshi, a professor and head of the linguistics department at the University of Manitoba, notes that war metaphors might artificially identify winners and losers in the pandemic—and those infected with the virus as the enemy.

But with war metaphors so entrenched in our language, what would it take to reframe the pandemic—and, potentially, future disasters—in the longer term? Well, let’s start by addressing the situation as what it is: a novel plague, not war.

In March 2020, when several countries were in lockdown, two Spanish academics, Paula Pérez-Sobrino, of the University of La Rioja, and Inés Olza, of the University of Navarra, launched #ReframeCovid, an academic research initiative on Twitter to urge the public to do away with war-themed language when describing the pandemic. According to Olza, the rationale behind the #ReframeCovid project is to replace martial metaphors’ violent undertones “with more inspirational language that fosters social cohesion.” As the initiative gained traction, Twitter users began sharing alternative approaches to reframe the pandemic along with the hashtags. Soon, linguists Koller and Semino also joined the research endeavour and created an open-source document that allows Twitter users to add alternative metaphors for reframing COVID-19. So far, there are nearly 200 options, yet none of them seem to have caught on.

According to Paradkar, the simple answer is that [Canadian] media, at least, have no incentive to redress the language. She says that martial rhetoric helps “attract more eyeballs to the sites.” She adds that once language is popularized, there is often little incentive to go back on its usage.

On finding other ways to frame the pandemic, Semino says that in recent months, people have compared the spread of COVID-19 with everything from natural disasters, including a tsunami, to, in the case of one Australian blogger, glitter. The natural disaster option holds some promise to Semino, and forest fires specifically serve as one of the most versatile metaphors. Fires, as she notes, evoke vivid imagery that is both threatening and familiar. According to the linguist, fires also vary in magnitude and severity—from small dumpster fires to medium-sized house fires to widespread forest fires. Like an infectious illness, they rely on density to spread. Both can be exacerbated and mitigated by certain human behaviours. And both can leave irreparable damage in their wake. Some people may find fire metaphors to be overly aggressive, with the potential to desensitize the public against danger; Semino concedes that the fire metaphor is not perfect, but that it is preferable to the sense of fatalism—the sense that all events are predetermined and therefore inevitable—that comes with the use of war metaphors.

While offering alternatives, Ghomeshi recollects how one of her friends, who has cancer, dislikes the war metaphor and would prefer not to think of her illness as an enemy invading her body but rather an “overeager cell” that multiplies. So, non-threatening metaphors might be more effective in the long term. Semino also discusses other analogies, such as playing a game or sport, dealing with an unwelcome guest, outwitting a trickster, or joining an orchestra or a band, where everyone plays their part.

Journalists need to consider their ethical duties when they attempt to “influence or inform” the public, as they have the authority to mold realities, says Rukhsana Ahmed, an adjunct communications professor at the University of Ottawa and associate professor at the University of Albany. “We [all] often get hung up on the immediate, but we need to go beyond that to understand how a word resonates with someone. For me, the war might mean something entirely different than for someone else who has been in a war.” She sees the appeal of war and fire metaphors, but questions the use of metaphors altogether in journalism. Likewise, Linna Tam-Seto, a post-doctoral research fellow in the Centre for International and Defence Policy at Queen’s University, advises journalists to steer away from metaphorical language. She says that using martial language dilutes the message. “Actual battles,” she adds, “start as disputes in ideologies, and the current pandemic is not about conflicting ideologies—it is rooted in scientific facts.” Yet war-based metaphors can position the ongoing pandemic “as a clash of ideologies—a disagreement in the way we see the world,” she says. The media, Seto maintains, need to return to central principles.

Consider it a wake-up call: We need to ground our reporting on facts and use clear, concise, and non-jargon-laden language when explaining the pandemic in breaking news stories. For some, that might mean avoiding metaphors altogether.

Shree Paradkar presents a simple guideline for when to use a metaphor in news reporting: “Don’t!” Especially “if it is a) unnecessary and b) it doesn’t draw an accurate image, then it is a waste of readers’ time.”

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