By Doug Pinkham
Public Affairs Council President

March 6, 2012

“Abuse of words has been the great instrument
of sophistry and chicanery, of party, faction,
and division of society.”

— John Adams

John Adams knew what he was talking about. The election of 1800 between Adams and Thomas Jefferson was one of the nastiest on record. Jefferson supporters called Adams a vain monarchist who was “quite mad,” writes historian David McCullough. Jefferson, meanwhile, was portrayed by Adams loyalists as an atheistic, “shameless Southern libertine.”

Modern campaigning has gone beyond name-calling and falsehoods (though they are still handy weapons). Now, political strategists use polling and focus groups to write language that defines policy debates and opponents. By choosing the right words, they believe they can elicit certain responses from voters.

We’ve talked before about Frank Luntz, whose deft use of words has successfully framed major issues. Thanks to Luntz, “estate taxes” were renamed “death taxes,” and “eavesdropping” became “electronic intercepts.” As Luntz said in his book, Words That Work, “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear” that has an impact.

Last year, two scholars at Stanford University took this concept one step further. If choosing the right words is so important in driving public opinion, they asked, could choosing the right metaphor be even more persuasive? “Metaphors aren’t just used for flowery speech,” said Lera Boroditsky, an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford. “They shape the conversation for things we’re trying to explain and figure out. And they have consequences for determining what we decide is the right approach to solving problems.”

Boroditsky and doctoral candidate Paul Thibodeau asked a large group of students to read short paragraphs about rising crime rates in the fictional city of Addison. In one version of the story, crime was described as “a beast ravaging the city of Addison.” In the second version, the researchers depicted crime as “a virus ravaging the city of Addison.”

When asked to recommend strategies for dealing with the problem, the test subjects’ answers differed greatly depending on which metaphor was used. Seventy-one percent of those who were presented with the beast metaphor called for more enforcement, while only 54 percent of participants who read the virus metaphor thought enforcement was the answer. The “virus” group was much more likely to suggest social reforms such as improving the economy or providing better education.

When the researchers asked test subjects to reveal their party affiliation, it turned out that Republican participants were about 10 percent more likely than Democrats to support stronger law enforcement. Yet the participants who had read the beast metaphor were about 20 percent more likely to support a get-tough-on-crime policy than those who read that crime was a virus, no matter their political persuasion.

In other words, using the right metaphor — particularly a violent one — can galvanize opinions and sometimes change minds.

This leads me to consider how many other violent metaphors dominate our political speech. It also makes me question the motives of those who use them.

Think how often we’ve heard the word “war” used to frame public policy. First there was the “war on poverty” in the 1960s and then the “war on drugs” in the 1970s. As catchphrases, they got the public’s attention and helped to rally Americans around big national problems. They had limitations, however, since anti-poverty programs were not military operations and enforcing the laws was only one component of the government’s anti-drug effort.

When President George W. Bush declared a “war on terror” to symbolize the fight against militant Islamists and al-Qaeda, he too was trying to rally the country — and his approach worked well. But over time, his phrase came to symbolize American militarism and anti-Islamic attitudes. That’s why, within weeks of taking office, President Barack Obama started referring to the “war on terror” as the “enduring struggle against terrorism and extremism.”

While imperfect, these war metaphors served a national purpose and were outwardly focused. That’s not the case with recent examples, which are showing up everywhere. Our latest symbolic wars relate to internal, partisan conflicts.

If you’re keeping score, at various times over the past three years Obama has been accused of waging wars on Americajobsthe economysmall businessbig businessgun ownersenergyreligion and even Christmas trees. Differences in social policy are called “culture wars,” and differences in economic policy amount to “class warfare.” This trend is not a coincidence; it is a conscious framing of the debate by opponents.

Meanwhile, we’ve heard lately about the Republican Party’s “war on science” and, because of recent controversies over abortion and contraception laws, its “war on women.” Democrats don’t play the war card as often as Republicans do, but they still play it.

Why? Matthew Nisbet, an associate professor of communication at American University, says when this framing device is used to point to an external or real threat, the metaphor transcends ideological divisions. But when the perceived threat comes from a group within American society, “the metaphor polarizes views, communicates the differences between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ and rallies a particular social movement or ideological base.”

As in the Stanford experiment, when we hear news of an aggressor threatening our way of life, our primal instincts kick in. We draw sharp battle lines and support tough actions to win the fight.

Before politicians can find bipartisan solutions to national problems, they need to stop dividing people into allies and enemies. They use the war metaphor because — so far — it works to energize their reelection campaigns. But it certainly doesn’t work for the country.

It’s time for rhetorical disarmament. No more metaphoric wars, battles, fights or clashes. We can still have lively debates, heated discussions and arguments, but let’s stop demonizing one another. When it comes to language, this country needs an anti-war movement — and I already have a bumper sticker in mind, courtesy of John Lennon:

All we are saying is give peace a chance.”

Comments? Email me.