Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Hot War-on-War action

There's a lot of war about these days. I know that's sadly usually the case globally, but I meant in daily life here in cushy western society. And I don't mean this in the most literal sense. I'm not regularly experiencing mortar fire every time I go to Morrison's to buy some bin bags. I meant the word 'War' is, as far as I can see, popping up seemingly everywhere. And words are funny things, aren't they?

Actually, forget that, most of the time they're not. Words can be quite bland. Slate, Grey, tepid, felt, step, moored, these are just some words which provoke little or no reaction in your average person, they just exist to fulfil a function. Like windowsills. They're useful and we'd miss them if they were gone, but I doubt anybody has ever said 'I do love those windowsills'. If I'm wrong about this and you know someone who does say that, then fair enough. But I'd give that person a wide berth if I were you.

But undeniably, some words can trigger intrinsic emotional responses. This is actually used in clinical assessment in a few ways, one of which is a version of the stroop test. To briefly describe it, subjects/patients are asked to say the colour of each word in a list of words, not to read it. Of course, people tend to be unable to stop themselves reading words, even if it's made more difficult, it's an automatic process much of the time. The emotional stroop test, as it's known, gets participants to give the colour of a list of words, some of which have strong emotional connotations. For example, if the test is intended to assess whether someone is depressed or not, a lot of the words will have strong, 'bleak' connotations (murder, suicide, cancer etc.). In theory, a depressed person will divert more attention to these loaded words than they will to more neutral, generic ones (leaf, wheelbarrow, melon etc.). Depression tends to be a self-perpetuating condition due to the psychological preoccupation and emphasis on the negatives, and this test arguably reveals indications of this.

So words can and do have intrinsically powerful meanings, is what the overall point is.

This has been brought up a lot recently, with the controversy over Workfare in the UK, the government scheme to get the unemployed back in work but without all that pesky payment to sort out. Whatever you think of it as a concept, it's definitely caused a lot of controversy, and there are plenty of other, better informed blogs/articles out there if you want to delve into that.
What struck me was the fact that many people are comparing it to slavery. Some were doing it for satire, which is fine. But many people objected to those objecting to workfare by comparing it to slavery. No doubt a fair bit of the latter is intellectual posturing, people wanting to show that they're even more 'right on' than the 'right on' bandwagon, but there's obviously some relevance to the complaints. I don't think that being compelled to work for several hours a day in order to justify benefits, however unpleasant and unfair it may be, can be seen as directly analogous to being kidnapped, beaten, sold as property and forcibly made to toil all day every day for the rest of your (undoubtedly short) life. Obviously, a lot of people feel strongly about the casual use of such a loaded word as slavery, one with such terrible historic implications.

Some words are too loaded, apparently, unless used with 100% contextual accuracy. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is largely subjective and depends on your views on free speech, censorship etc. I've mentioned before how the previously used term 'depression' may be too generic, meaning sufferers might get short shrift as a result. And the casual use of the term 'rape' is not something that usually ends well, as I may have discussed.
What confuses me, though, is why the same consideration and gravitas isn't applied to the term 'War'. I don't think there are many rational people who actually think war is a good thing. Those who are 'pro war' are almost exclusively people who are very unlikely to actually experience it directly. I may be wrong about this, but I'll go out on a limb and say that people who genuinely think war is a good thing are unlikely to be the sort of people who would object to using a specific term in an incorrect context. They're clearly an 'ends justify the means' type.

But of those who do object to the casual use of meaningful, loaded terms, I've not yet seen anyone object to the causal use of the word war. I'm just wondering why this is?

War is, at best, viewed as a necessary evil. And when the most positive spin you can give to something includes the word 'evil', that's not a good sign. The very existence of war has often been used as a shortcut in sci-fi to show that humans = evil (check out The Fifth Element, or any series of Star Trek). War is bloody. War is destructive. War involves armed conflict and invariably a high death toll. War kills people, usually in their thousands, often indiscriminately. Cultures, societies, populations, environments, there are many examples of each that have been utterly devastated by war. Historically, that's what war does.

In a historical context, War has killed countless millions over thousands of years, and with the invention of nuclear weapons it has become something that could wipe out the human race altogether, and relatively easily. We still have remembrance day and many other occasions across the world to honour those who went to war (and never came back) so we don't have to now. So, historically, war clearly has the same resonance and connotations of words such as slavery, or genocide, or holocaust.

Now, imagine if there was a TV advert for a bleach or toilet cleaner with the slogan 'It's like a bacteria holocaust!' It would be pulled from the air in seconds and those who made it would be pilloried mercilessly (and rightly so, I hasten to add). However, if the slogan was 'go to war on bacteria', that would be fine, people probably wouldn't even register it as anything unusual. Because it wouldn't be.

Just through the use of google autocomplete, here are some wars that are apparently going on at the moment.

War on Women

War on Waste

War on Want

Welfare state

War on Free Speech

War on Christmas

War on Drugs

War on Terror

War on Binge Drinking

War on Teenagers

War on Poverty

War on the working classes

War on Piracy

War on Censorship

War on Islam

War on Christianity

War on Religion

War on atheism

War on science

War on Democracy

War on Unions

Price War

Bidding War

That's a lot of war to be getting on with, and I've not even mentioned the actual armed conflicts (which are these days, contrastingly, being described as 'police actions', 'insurrections' and so on, not 'wars').

The term war is clearly thrown around so casually that I worry it's become largely devalued. Vince Cable declared that he'd 'declared war on [Rupert] Murdoch'. As much as I like the idea of Vince Cable recruiting an army and forcibly storming the offices of the Sun at Wapping, I don't think that's what he meant. I'm pretty sure for something to actually be a war, both sides involved have to actually be aware that it's happening.

War on women, war on waste, war on want, war on working classes, war of words, I now move we declare 'War on words that begin with W purely to take advantage of the phonetic similarity'.

The war on Christmas has been going on for many years now. I guess that's inevitable, as it's one of the only wars where you can't say 'it'll all be over by Christmas'. It's the opposite, if anything.

The War on Poverty was declared in the 60's, apparently. I'm going to assume it didn't involve carpet-bombing impoverished areas with shell casings filled with banknotes and jewels. If anything, the war has stepped up in recent years, with the 'Make Poverty History' campaign calling for all-out eradication of poverty. A poverty-genocide, if you will.

If you believe what you read these days, most of the major religions (and also atheists) are having war waged against them, although none claim to have initiated hostilities nor to be actively taking part in said war. Indeed many are engaging in some bizarre form of pre-emptive retaliation, which doesn't seem logical when you think about it

A lot of these 'wars' are shorthand ways of describing a seemingly orchestrated campaign by a particular organisation or powerful body to limit the powers/rights of another group, or to undermine a process or principle which they see as a threat. I'm not saying these are good things or that they aren't happening, but I just question the appropriateness of describing them as 'wars'. And I'm aware of the irony of me questioning whether or not 'War on Freedom of Speech' is an acceptable term.

It would be easy to blame George W. Bush and co for starting all this, with their 'War on Terror', an official armed conflict against an abstract concept. But there's plenty of examples before this. The Cold war, which had the threat of war but no actual conflict. The Cod war, which was purely about fishing territories, but at least was an official disagreement between 2 countries, which is one of the aspects that normally defines a war. But these days it seems that someone can declare a war against something/someone at the drop of a hat, and nobody even registers it. People even use the phrase 'been in the wars' to describe someone who's had a run of bad luck. Not even one war, several!  

You could argue that the term is being used correctly, as war can be described as 'active hostility, contention, conflict'. Indeed, not arguing that; hostility and conflict can easily occur without actual violence or weaponry or death. But then a slave can be defined as 'a person entirely under the domination of some influence or person'. People on workfare could be said to meet this description, as they are under the domination of the government/social services who will remove their life sustaining benefits if they don't work for free, but this is argued to be an inappropriate term because of the historical context around slavery. Fair enough. This is the case for slavery. Not for war, though. Granted there are still people experiencing slavery today, the fallout from it is still very real and it's undeniably a very real problem that ruins lives. But this is also very much the case for war.

I just can't help but wonder why this casual use of the term war has come about unremarked upon. I can't imagine someone who has written a successful book talking about it being subject to a studio 'bidding war', to a WWII veteran with one leg. Odds are it could happen and neither party would think anything of it. It just strikes me as odd.

Maybe people are more comfortable with using the term war as it is taken to mean 'conflict', and it's very hard to avoid conflict in normal everyday life, whereas most people can easily go their whole lives without enslaving anyone or committing genocide.

I don't have an answer or any real alternative for this situation, other than to highlight a supposed double standard that nobody else seems to have picked up on. If I were a conspiracy theorist, I could suggest that this was an orchestrated attempt by those in power to rob the term War of its gravitas, so that when the next full-on military war is declared (let's say against, oh, I don't know, Iran, to pick a country entirely at random), people are more likely to just tut and sigh, rather than stage massive protests. Another war? Just add it to the pile.

I guess we need a new word to describe initiating a conflict without a violent military component. I propose 'Bilgefest' or 'Lubeathon'. It would be hard for politicians or powerful individuals to declare a 'Bilgefest' and retain any credibility, so they might not bother?

Twitter: @garwboy

1 comment:

Old Rockin' Dave said...

The 'War on Piracy' shouldn't be lumped with the others, since it does involve a fair amount of naval activity and guns and shooting and so forth.
More generally, some of it has come into modern usage to signify a broadly based effort by a unified society to overcome some real or perceived evil, similar to what Western nations did in World War II.
Oddly, comparisons to the Manhattan Project are sometimes used and no one objects, even though it might conjure up images of devastated cities and horribly burned babies dying of radiation sickness.

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