The Coronavirus and the Language of War

Updated: May 24



My last post caught what turned out to be a brief moment when the President’s tone at a press conference appeared to express a concern for the vulnerable and I thought this signaled a possible change in our social climate. No such luck!


The government has now slipped into the language of war, which belongs to a system of thought that provides a framework for talking about a problem, how to solve it, and what “victory” looks like. Let’s think about this for a minute.


First of all, there are other options than war talk. The civil rights movement, for example, was not framed as a “war against discrimination” or a “war against white supremacy.” It was a movement seeking protection for the rights of citizens. The movement certainly encountered hostile forces and the federal government sent troops to protect demonstrators, but these troops were not fighting a war. They were protecting civilians.


In the language of war, there are two groups: combatants and civilians. Combatants fight each other and civilians suffer the consequences. This doesn’t fit well with our situation where caregivers, not warriors, have the experience and courage to deal with our health crisis.


It’s not that the language of war is unpopular. Gun sales have increased throughout the nation. Guns don’t kill viruses; they kill people. The language of war easily ends up creating an enemy. The President’s calling the coronavirus a “Chinese virus” fits in this framework.


The language also divides us into winners and losers, which appears to define much of Trump’s world. If one takes up this distinction, when would we know who wins or who loses? Here we see a potential dilemma: Do we win when the vulnerable are protected or do we win when American prosperity returns? Is this the way we want to frame the issue?


We have had social wars before such as the war on poverty or the war on drugs. They ended up disempowering groups rather than empowering them. What have we learned from these experiences?


Maybe if our language was grounded more in the language of care and nurture, we would have a better grasp of what a climate of justice would require. There is no shortage of caregivers who could promote such a climate. Let’s make room for their voices.

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