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Stop bombarding us with military metaphors

  • 26 February 2020


When you are listening to proposals it pays to attend to the metaphors being used. These often shape the argument and the proposals made. When voters are described as punters, for example, the gambling metaphor suggests that the political system is like a horse race in which the politicians are trained owned and trained by others and the well-heeled bookies always win. We would naturally ask whose interests proposals made by the speaker will support. They are not likely to further the cause of an informed democracy.

One of the most popular, and largely counterproductive, metaphors in public conversation is the military one. It suggests that the project commended is a war in which there is an enemy, a campaign to be begun, forces to be mobilised, a public whose support is to be won, and weapons to be used. As in a war, too, the stakes are high — matters of life and death. They commit us to do whatever it takes to win the war.

Proper wars, of course, are between nations. But the military metaphor is often used to describe other aspects of international relations: trade and sport, for example. It is almost always unhelpful because in these relationships negotiation and a level of mutual trust are essential to secure national interests. If we see our negotiating partners as enemies to be defeated, we are less likely to advance our interest than if our guiding metaphor were that of a market in which we bartered.

In sport, too, the military metaphor is rife. Winning at all costs, taking one for the team, dying for the flag, shedding the last drop of blood, winning each battle are gold coinage in sporting rhetoric. Its effects on the behaviour of sports persons are evident. The military metaphor, too, corrodes its military origins. The distasteful association of football games with Anzac Day, with its array of sportsperson’s warrior images, trivialises the commemoration of the death of soldiers in war.

The military metaphor is often used, too, when speaking of health. People are described as fighting cancer and other life threatening illnesses, winning or losing battles with sickness. Chemotherapy and other intrusive treatments are described as weapons, and people are praised for never surrendering in the fight against disease, for being valiant warriors to the last. We all deal with life-threatening illness as we can death as we can, of course, and it is unfair to