“Everything is what it is, and not any other thing,” said bishop Joseph Butler. But sometimes we use language in non-literal ways to make a point. In other words, sometimes we need a metaphor: an existing image or conceptual framework repurposed to illuminate another one. Metaphors are crucial to language. We could hardly do without them.
But they also lay traps for the unwary, and policymakers should think hard before rushing to declare, as France’s president François Hollande did after last Friday’s terror attacks in Paris, that the killings constituted an “act of war”.
“War” has its uses as a metaphor. Most importantly, it focuses attention: there is no greater national emergency. War calls for urgency, unity and sacrifice. Leaders in wartime can expect a singleness of purpose from their followers that no other situation can command.
But the problem with metaphors is that—by definition—they are not the thing itself. Metaphors are meant to highlight structural similarities between two things, but not exact similarity. Usually this is not a problem; when Tom Cochrane sang “Life is a Highway”, listeners didn’t expect petrol stations every so often. But sometimes metaphors mean different things to different people. It is important that the audience sees the same similarities you do.
When they do not, the result can be a disaster. George Bush declared a “crusade” after September 11th, 2001. By this he meant a great moral challenge—the way we use a “crusade” for any values-driven cause today. Muslims in the Middle East quickly drew other similarities: the original literal Crusades resulted in invasion and occupation of Muslim lands. So, it transpired, did Mr Bush’s crusade.
What, then, about “war”? War in its canonical form has state armies on a battlefield trying to control territory. Most of today’s shooting wars are not even that clean cut—America has not declared one officially since the second world war. But worse, politicians have been unable to resist the temptation to declare war on things like poverty (Lyndon Johnson), drugs (Ronald Reagan) or terrorism (George Bush).
Declaring such “wars” is a problem because such a war on a concept is unwinnable: poverty and drugs will never show up and sign a surrender document on the battleship Missouri, as Imperial Japan did in 1945 to end the second world war. Did Johnson defeat poverty? Did Reagan defeat drugs? We certainly know that Mr Bush did not defeat terrorism.
What about declaring war on Islamic State (IS), presumed by all to be behind the Paris massacres? “War” is exactly the term IS would most eagerly choose. Wars are fought by armies belonging to states—just what the Islamic State fancies itself. In reality, the territory controlled by ISIS—the “caliphate”—has some elements of a state, with everything from fighting forces to rudimentary social services, but it is unrecognised, claiming territory other states have a legitimate claim to. IS’s claim to state status is dubious. Mr Hollande runs the risk of raising that status when he calls eight men with guns and small bombs capable of “an act of war” against a nuclear power.
There is an argument to be made for denigrating the perpetrators instead of raising them to the level of soldiers fighting for their country. Mr Hollande also called the attacks “cowardly”. John Kerry, the American secretary of state, chose this tack, calling the Paris attackers “psychopathic monsters”. Vladimir Putin has called them “criminals” (after the downing of a Russian jet, apparently also by IS). This approach has its merits: the Paris shooters were opportunistic thugs, losers who got guns and took out their frustrations on innocent soft targets, not soldiers fighting armed equals on a battlefield. But the “criminal” metaphor has its own problems: the Paris killers were more than petty gangsters, and the problem is considerably more urgent than the average street crime. Like the “war” metaphor, “crime” matches only some of the facts.
Metaphors have real world consequences, as clever psycholinguistic research has shown. Too much talk of “crime” and the urgency of terrorism can be understated, as after the first small bombings of the World Trade Center. But too much talk of “war” is perhaps the bigger problem. No democratic politician can afford to look too cool-headed or cerebral in the face of enormities like Paris. But rhetoric risks working like a one-way ratchet, leaders trying to outdo each other on who is keenest to fight. Voters listen, and demands for bombings and boots on the ground (Russia and France are already bombing), which can create a feedback loop. The bad guys on the other side will gleefully respond in kind. Without anyone quite having planned it, war is no longer just a metaphor.