We need better metaphors. The War on… is getting old.

The images we use to frame our problems have a huge impact on our thinking. So we need to choose wisely.

My issues with the war metaphor

We seem to be surrounded by war: War on Drugs. The War on Terror. War on Science. War on Poverty. War on Cancer. War on Gangs. War on Women.

I have two issues with that:

  1. Overusing this metaphor might desensitize us to what war actually means. But I have no prove of that.
  2. Metaphors shape the way we think more than we’re usually aware of. There’s are some quite famous experiments about this. Here’s a paper and here a good summary.

So I stick with the second.

Metaphors frame our thinking

Quick and dirty recap of the linked texts.

Metaphorically framing crime as a beast that preys on a city had quite a different effect on the proposed solution then framing crime as a virus— even when every other provided information stayed the same. The beast metaphor lead to solutions that were more on the enforcement side, the virus metaphor lead to solutions that where more often about sozial reform, about trying to find and cure the cause.

What frame does war provide?

Us versus them. Victory versus defeat. Right versus wrong. Worthy versus unworthy. Esprit de corps. All or nothing. Everyone pulling together. Voicing dissenting opinions is bad for morale, can undermine the victory, is unpatriotic, is even treason. Force is the solution. Domination is key.

Can you see this frame of thinking solve the complex problems we’re facing today? Situations consisting of dozens and hundreds of interconnected variables? Situations, where patient work over a long time is needed? Where improvements develop gradually? Where there are no clear conditions for winning?

I don’t. Please tell me I’m wrong.

What would better metaphors be? And why are they so hard to come by?

Disease and medicine might be good sources, as well as farming, crafts, industry or ecology. Anything, really, where it’s about co-operation, problem-solving and more long-term thinking.

The challenge with these kind of metaphors is that they are less emotional loaded. And that they aren’t as easy as war or fight. They need a bit of experience, a bit of knowledge, a bit of thinking. All of which needs energy and patience we as a species are sometimes loathe to invest (I could have used “loath to spend” here, but investment is the more productive metaphor.)

Over to you

What’s your opinion on that? What metaphors do you prefer?

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