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How Talking About the Coronavirus as an Enemy Combatant Can Backfire

Tabitha Moses, a doctoral candidate at Wayne State University, offers an interesting approach to communicating about COVID-19, with lessons for business leaders, too.

We see this war reflected in the language that gets used by politicians, policymakers, journalists and healthcare workers.

As the “invisible enemy” rolled in, entire economies halted as populations “sheltered in place.” We were told to “hunker down” for the long battle ahead and to “support our troops,” the health care workers, fighting on the “front lines.”

These military-inspired metaphors serve a purpose. Unlike the dense linguistic landscape of science and medicine, their messages are clear: Danger. Buckle Down. Cooperate.

In fact, studies have shown that sometimes military metaphors can help unite people against a common enemy. They can convey a sense of urgency so that people drop what they’re doing and start paying attention.

However, as someone who has studied the way language influences behavior, I know that this kind of rhetoric can have long-term effects that are less positive, particularly within health and medicine. In fact, research has shown that these metaphors can cause people to make decisions that go against sound medical advice.

A linguistic war footing

Militarized rhetoric was popularized with the “War on Drugs,” a term coined by President Richard Nixon in an effort to reduce illicit drug use in the U.S. Since then, the language of war has seeped into our collective lexicon. We’re currently engaged in a war against climate change. Some argue there’s a war on Christmas, while others say there’s a war against truth.

So it’s only natural that when a new, deadly virus emerges, the warspeak persists.

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Military metaphors aren’t new to medicine; they’ve long played a role in shaping patients’ relationships with illnessCancer is a key example of this. The cancer is an enemy, invading the patient’s body. Patients are told they must fight, that they are at war, and they must be strong while they receive treatments that target those enemy cells for destruction.

The fact they are used so often indicates that these metaphors serve a purpose. They’re simple and straightforward, helping us comprehend and categorize something that’s complex and unpredictable.

Why war and medicine don’t mesh

But this framing contains a potentially dangerous undercurrent.

For the rest of this provocative piece, click here.

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