What’s In A Name?

war_painting_by_annelysa-d4m3lbyWe are at war, aren’t we?

After barbaric terror attacks in Paris, France’s president François Hollande rushed to declare that the killings constituted an “act of war”. French political leaders across the spectrum have voiced their unanimous support, and French intellectuals, like Bernard-Henri Lévy, not only support but encourage a war response:

So it’s war. A new kind of war. A war with and without borders, with and without states, a war doubly new because it blends the non-territorial model of al-Qaeda with the old territorial paradigm to which Islamic State has returned. But a war all the same.

It seems a natural reaction, like George Bush’s after 9/11. However some voices are also raising concern about using the name war and/or declaring war on Islamic State. To begin with, war is exactly the term IS would most eagerly choose, because wars are traditionally fought by armies belonging to states—just what the Islamic State fancies itself. Some politicians and public people now avoid using the term IS for that reason. Worse, declaring war on things is pointless.

Declaring such “wars” is a problem because such a war on a concept is unwinnable (…) Did Johnson defeat poverty? Did Reagan defeat drugs? We certainly know that Mr Bush did not defeat terrorism.

In an article for the New York Times, “Fearing Fear Itself“, Paul Krugman argues that we shouldn’t dignify terrorism with the name of war:

the goal of terrorists is to inspire terror, because that’s all they’re capable of. And the most important thing our societies can do in response is to refuse to give in to fear.

Quite interestingly, he emphasizes the cost of opportunity of waging a war on terrorism:

terrorism is just one of many dangers in the world, and shouldn’t be allowed to divert our attention from other issues. Sorry, conservatives: when President Obama describes climate change as the greatest threat we face, he’s exactly right. Terrorism can’t and won’t destroy our civilization, but global warming could and might.

Bruce Schneier recalls that our job is to remain steadfast in the face of terror, to refuse to be terrorized, and not to panic:

The surest defense against terrorism is to refuse to be terrorized. Our job is to recognize that terrorism is just one of the risks we face, and not a particularly common one at that. And our job is to fight those politicians who use fear as an excuse to take away our liberties and promote security theater that wastes money and doesn’t make us any safer.

Being in war have real life implications. After the attacks, France declared a state of emergency, In Germany, a football match was cancelled after French spies warned of five bomb plot. And this weekend Brussels has remained on lockdown on maximum alert amid terror-attack fears. During the state of emergency, the powers given to the police and administrative authorities are increased, regardless of judicial authority. A lot of questions about the future of Europe’s visa-free Shengen zone are being raised. Unfortunately, atrocities in Paris are going to affect our response to the refugee crisis, and maybe—maybe—the European dream is at stake.

Yes, this is war.

Beyond all these evident consequences, there are deeper covert consequences. In a seminal paper published in February 2011, “Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning”, Paul H. Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky present the result of five experiments showing how words—metaphors—condition our thinking, and our action plans.

Far from being mere rhetorical flourishes, metaphors have profound influences on how we conceptualize and act with respect to important societal issues. Exposure to a single metaphor can induce substantial differences in opinion about how to solve social problems.

Metaphors influence the way that we reason about complex issues and forage for further information about them. Even the subtlest instantiation of a metaphor via a single word like war can have a powerful influence over how people attempt to solve social problems and how they gather information to make ‘‘well-informed’’ decisions. The influence of the metaphorical framing effect is covert: people do not recognize metaphors as influential in their decisions; instead they point to more ‘‘substantive’’ –often numerical– information as the motivation for their problem-solving decision.

Yes, this is also a very real war, a war against the unknown forces that seize our mental frameworks. Maybe, that which we call a rose, by any other name wouldn’t smell as sweet after all.

What do you think? How do you name it? War?


(1) Thibodeau, Paul H., and Lera Boroditsky. “Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning.” PLoS ONE 6, no. 2 (February 23, 2011): e16782. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0016782.

Featured Image: War painting by AnneLysa


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