August 6, 2019
The ‘warspeak’ permeating everyday language puts us all in the trenchesRoundup
tags: Gun Violence
Robert Myers is a Professor of Anthropology & Public Health at Alfred University.
In a manifesto posted online shortly before he went on to massacre 22 people at an El Paso Walmart, Patrick Crusius cited the “invasion” of Texas by Hispanics. In doing so, he echoed President Trump’s rhetoric of an illegal immigrant “invasion.”
Think about what this word choice communicates: It signals an enemy that must be beaten back, repelled and vanquished.
Yet this sort of language – what I call “warspeak” – has relentlessly crept into most aspects of American life and public discourse.
After the Columbine shooting, I started writing about how “gunspeak” – the way everyday turns of phrase, from “bite the bullet” and “sweating bullets,” to “trigger warnings” and “pulling the trigger” – reflected a society obsessed with guns.
But warspeak’s tentacles extend much further. Words and phrases derived from war imagery crop up in advertisements, headlines and sports coverage. They’ve inspired an entire lexicon deployed on social media and in politics.
The intent might be as benign as the creative use of language. But I wonder if it communicates larger truths about American violence and polarization.
The political battlefield
For decades, America has been fighting metaphorical wars – wars on heart disease, drugs, smoking, cancer, poverty, advertising and illiteracy.
Then there are the culture wars, which have intensified recently to include wars on Christmas, abortion, bathrooms, cops and women. These are different: They involve people on two sides of a polarizing issue.
War targets an enemy – someone or something to be defeated, using whatever means necessary. It’s one thing when you’re at war with a disease. It’s quite another when you’re at war with a group of people on the other side of a political issue.
The political arena seems to have become especially fertile ground for warspeak.
Otherwise boring legislative machinations have been energized with the drama of a life or death struggle. The Republican-controlled Senate uses a “nuclear option” to confirm judges by a simple majority of 51 votes rather than the older standard of 60 votes. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s ability to speed along the appointment of conservative judges constitutes the latest volley in a “judicial arms race.”
Elections deploy the language of military campaigns. Republican donors and lawmakers warned Trump of a potential bloodbath before the 2018 midterm elections. Meanwhile, Democrats running for president strategize in their campaign “war rooms” for ways to build up “war chests” that will leave them with enough funds to compete in the “battleground states.”
The political media reinforces it all. In its coverage of the July primary debates, The New York Times wrote that the moderates were “throwing firebombs” at the progressives. Cory Booker, the “happy warrior,” sparred with former Vice President Joe Biden who “took incoming fire” all night, but “shot back” and survived, even as moderator Don Lemon “threw a generational warfare bomb.”