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A contribution to The Place of the US in the World Community: A Discussion

Language/Science/Politics 101:
War Is a Bad Metaphor

Paul Grobstein
Center for Science in Society
Department of Biology
Bryn Mawr College
10 June 2003

Politics is the art of the doable ... and those who can't do teach? Maybe there's more to it than that. Maybe one could think of academics as those who practice the art of imagining the potentially doable, those things that aren't yet part of the repertoire of politicians but might usefully become so? Then academic work might actually be significant for politics. How about language studies? Science? Perhaps a combination of the two? Let's see ...

I was struck by recent news reports indicating that the "war" on Iraq has now been downgraded by the President and those around him to a "battle". The point is that since we are engaged in a continuing "war on terrorism", what we have been through in Iraq must be only a part of that, and so couldn't itself be a war. It looks like language, at least, does matter in politics, even to politicians.

How about science? As a biologist, what the recent language adjustment brought to my mind is the "war on cancer", announced with great fanfare several decades ago. What has, of course, come to be understood (at least among biologists) is that one can't effectively wage a "war" on cancer. Cancer is not a single entity but rather a wide array of different disruptions in the growth patterns of the body. There is no single "invader"; indeed in many cases there is no invader at all. The only common feature is a disturbance of one or another element of the complex web of internal signaling which operates to keep different cells in the body working in coordinated ways with one another. One can learn more about this signaling and try to develop ways to correct disturbances in it (hopefully, but not always, without creating new disturbances along the way). That, though, is a quite different thing from waging a "war", with its associated images of a clear opponent over whom a decisive victory can be won.

Susan Sontag, in her "Illness as Metaphor" (1978) wrote compellingly about the need for "an elucidation of ... metaphors, and a liberation from them", at least particular ones. What was on her mind was the problem of the constraints on the potentially doable which inevitably arise from the words we use to make sense of things, and the associated limited array of possible actions which the words represent and evoke. Sontag understood that there could not be a "war" on cancer, and suggested that then current modes of thinking about cancer (and other illnesses) in turn reflected unproductive and potentially dangerous constraints on one's thinking due to the use of military metaphors.

Perhaps all this is relevant to the "war on terrorism"? In some more than "academic" way? I think it is indeed practically relevant, of course. A week after 11 September 2001 I wrote in a forum on our Serendip website:

it has seemed ever clearer to me that the tragedy of that day was an expression of a deep estrangement of groups of humans from one another, an estrangement so deep and profound that some human beings felt able to kill other human beings, and justified in doing so by their own visions of what is right and good ... Violence begets violence; it cannot but enhance rather than reduce the estrangement from which we all suffer. There is no route to any degree of safety or security for any of us, or our children, or our children's children, until we recognize that estrangement of groups of human beings from one another is itself the core problem that must be solved
(http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/serendip/11sept2001/11septcon.html#205)

Perhaps one can't wage a successful "war" on terrorism for the same reasons that one can't wage a successful war on cancer? What needs to be addressed is in both cases disguised by the metaphor. It has become clearer and clearer that there is in the case of terrorism, as in the case of cancer, no well-defined or single invader or enemy the destruction of whom will "fix the problem". There is instead a disturbance in the patterns of communication and understandings among human beings.

Such disturbances are not, and have never been, amenable to repair by military action. They may in fact not be amenable to solution by any of the "doables" in the repertoire of the traditional politician. Maybe we need ... the combination of politics, and language scholars, and scientists, the amalgam that can conceive the new potentially doable? And maybe that in turn would look something like:

We need to talk to and understand each other ... not to forgive, not even to persuade, but rather to allow to emerge from our different stories and ideas the needed broader human story in which all human beings feel they are involved and in which all play a meaningful and satisfying part. We need together to conceive new kinds of meaning ... We are, individually and collectively, responsible for our lives, and we must accept the challenge of finding ways to make them meaningful for all of us. It is a daunting challenge, a journey into unknown territory ... (http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/serendip/11sept2001/11septcon.html#205)

Perhaps we all, politicians and academics and everyone else, need to face our own limited understandings and go back to school (or perhaps go on to what school might not have been but should be), to better conceptualize problems we do not yet well enough understand and to create together the new kinds of tools we need to address those problems.


Your thoughts on this essay and/or contributions to thinking in new ways about the US and world affairs are welcome in Serendip's on-line forum on The Place of the US in the World Community: A Discussion.

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