Micro-Macro Connection

The Language of War

The governmental or political use of language illustrates how words can determine the course of people’s everyday lives both at home and abroad. We all know what the word war means: It’s when two opposing forces wage battle against one another, either until one side surrenders or until both agree to a truce. The vocabulary of war is vast, containing words such as troops, battle, regiments, ammunition, artillery, allies, enemies, heroes, casualties, and so forth.

In wartime, there is good and evil, us and them, victory and defeat. The language of war contains euphemisms, too, designed to minimize the public’s discomfort and increase its support: collateral damage (civilian deaths during military combat), surgical strikes (attacks intended to destroy a specific target and minimize collateral damage), friendly fire (accidental shooting at fellow soldiers), pullback (retreat), sectarian violence (civil war), enhanced interrogation (torture).

Once a conflict is defined as a war, people’s lives are subjected to a different set of rules and expectations. War rallies people around their collective national identity and a common objective, creating mandatory expressions of patriotism and a willingness to fight and make sacrifices (Redstone, 2003). The interpretation of people’s behavior dramatically changes as well. For example, some characterized the atrocities that occurred during the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s as the normal consequences of war. However,

Is wide-scale sexual violence, including the rape of women and the forced oral castration of men, neighbors burning down their neighbors’ homes, the murder and targeting for murder of civilians—men and women, children, the elderly, and infirm—”normal” simply because it takes place within the context of something we call “war”? (Wilmer, 2002, p. 60)

Immediately after the attacks of September 11, 2001, then-President Bush unofficially declared a war on terrorism, which continues to this day. But the administration later opted for the term War on Terror and then Global War on Terror rather than War on Terrorism, evoking both the violent actions of terrorists and the fear they’re trying to create. In 2005, the administration shifted its language and began testing a new slogan, A Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism, in an attempt to convey the impression that the war was as much an ideological battle as it was a military mission (Schmitt & Shanker, 2005). The Obama administration continues to use equally ambiguous terms like Overseas Contingency Operation and Systematic Effort to Dismantle Terrorist Organizations, thereby avoiding reference to “war” and “violence” altogether.

Whether the enemy is terror, terrorism, terrorist organizations, terrorist networks, Islamofascism, or violent extremism, invoking the vocabulary of war has some strategic advantages—among them, justifying actions that would not be acceptable in any other context. As one columnist put it, “In wartime, words are weapons” (Safire, 2006, p. 16). By continually using the language of war, an administration can frame the expansion of government powers and the limitation of civil liberties as the steps we need to take to protect freedom, bring “enemies” and “evildoers” to justice, and avoid another catastrophe.

In a wartime mode, even though concerns about national security are warranted and fears of attack are very real, the system, according to one prominent law professor, “by definition sweeps very broadly and ends up harming hundreds if not thousands of people” (quoted in Liptak, 2003, p. A1). Actions that in other contexts would be unacceptable occur largely without debate or opposition, reflecting the power of language in shaping the social reality of everyday life.

Even in the absence of any foreign enemy, militarized vocabularies and tactics can shape perceptions. In the past few years, we’ve witnessed more and more police departments around the country resorting to a military model to frame their interactions with the public (Kraska, 2007). Through its “1033 Program,” the Pentagon provides local police departments with military weapons, munitions, high-tech surveillance equipment, armored personnel carriers, mine-resistant ambush-protected tanks, even helicopters free of charge. Since the program was created in the 1990s, police departments have received over $5.1 billion worth of military equipment (Dansky, 2014). Furthermore, contemporary police training programs routinely teach members of SWAT teams to think and act like soldiers (American Civil Liberties Union, 2014). A clear example of this approach occurred in 2014. As protestors took to the streets in the aftermath of the police shooting of unarmed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, police responded in a distinctly military fashion. They wore camouflage gear, drove armored attack vehicles, and carried military-grade assault weapons and ammunition. Such militarization encourages officers to adopt a “warrior” mentality and think of the citizens they’re supposed to safeguard as enemies (American Civil Liberties Union, 2014). As one former Marine asked, “When did ‘protect and serve’ turn into ‘us versus them’?” (Szoldra, 2014, p. 1).


The WEIRDest People in the World

Biased samples can be especially misleading when researchers attempt to make broad statements about human nature. For instance, American undergraduate students make up about two thirds of subjects in all U.S. psychological studies, the topics of which range from visual perceptions to beliefs about fairness and cooperation. However, according to one recent review of such experiments, these subjects are totally unrepresentative of people worldwide. They may be similar to other subjects from societies that are Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD), but not representative of humans at large:

Sampling from a thin slice of humanity would be less problematic if researchers confined their interpretations to the populations from which they sampled. However, despite their narrow samples, behavioral scientists often are interested in drawing inferences about the human mind and human behaviour.... Leading scientific journals and university textbooks routinely publish research findings claiming to generalize to “humans” or “people” based on research done entirely with WEIRD undergraduates. (Henrich, Heine, & Norenzayan, 2010, p. 63)

In one common experiment on fairness and cooperation in decision making, one subject (the “proposer”) in a pair is given a sum of money and told that she or he can offer any portion of it to a second subject (the “responder”), who then decides whether to accept or reject the offer. If the responder accepts the offer, both subjects receive the proposed amount; if the responder rejects the offer, both subjects get nothing. Among WEIRD undergraduate subjects, proposers typically offer about 50% of the original amount and responders tend to reject offers below 30%. From these findings researchers have concluded that humans have a highly evolved sense of justice, leading us to make fair offers and to punish unfair ones, even if it comes at our own expense.

But when this experiment was conducted with subjects drawn from 23 small-scale societies in Africa, the Amazon rain forest, Oceania, Siberia, and Papua New Guinea, proposers made much smaller offers—in some cases, around 25%—and responders usually didn’t reject them. In fact, in half of these societies, responders tended to reject offers only when they were too high (Henrich et al., 2010). Hence, experiments that utilize samples of WEIRD subjects may be measuring a specific set of social norms that emerge in societies where people regularly deal with money, markets, and strangers and not some universal component of human nature.