As one of my favorite linguists Dubravko Škiljan once stated, societal crises always manifest themselves as communication crises first. The current Covid-19 pandemic is a good example of this view. This became obvious not only to linguists who usually deal with the challenges of public communication, but also to the public sphere in a Habermasian sense.
In Spain, a group of linguists (i.a. Inés Olza, Paula Sobrino) initiated the linguistic and social action project ReframeCovid, with the aim of offering an alternative communication setting for discussions about coronavirus (see #ReframeCovid on Twitter). Further prominent linguists from the UK (i.a. Elena Semino, Veronika Koller) and many other colleagues worldwide soon joined this unique linguistically oriented crowdsourcing project, looking in particular for alternatives to war metaphors, as these have been proved to have been used very frequently.
There has been even more media coverage discussing this subject, with some input from cognitive linguists and discourse analysists, for instance in The Guardian, BBC, New Statesmen, and The New York Times, to name a few.
The Serbian, critically oriented weekly, Vreme, has also looked into the subject, prompted further by the specific context of a proclaimed state of emergency, as well as a curfew lasting for several days and the increasingly authoritarian ruling style of the Serbian president.
Jelena Jorgačević Kisić interviewed several European scholars who investigate communication and public language use. With her kind permission we have published the English translation of her article here.
(Mis-)Use of language in the times of corona
When talking about the virus, the use of war metaphors can frequently be heard. What does that tell us about those who use such metaphors and about their actions? Which are the territories in this war that the government could not only defend, but also conquer? Can we talk about the coronavirus differently and more constructively? And if so, in what way?
“Citizens of Serbia, stand by your country. Long live Serbia,” were the words that Aleksandar Vulin, Serbia’s minister of defense, chose to finish his speech with on TV Pink. The occasion of his public address was the emergence of the Covid-19 virus pandemic, its risks and threats, and the urgent measures that were needed to be taken by the president. One day later, on 15th March, a state of emergency was declared. “As of today, Serbia is at war with an invisible enemy. Our Serbia has to win (…) this is going to be the hardest battle for our people, a battle for our elderly and sick, they are the target of this severe attack (…). Surrendering is not an option for Serbia,” said Aleksandar Vučić, among other things.
Government representatives, as well as some public experts, have continued to speak about the coronavirus through the use of war terminology. The key words were battles and allies, as well as culprits (from examples such as Gastarbeiter and bad citizens to Europe, which does not show solidarity), firm leadership, enemy, suffering, putting people under stricter rule, dramatic situation, state of war and military discipline.
It is far from being the case that this war frame is only present in Serbia when talking about the health crisis. The Hungarian president Viktor Orban talked about war on two fronts – against migration and against the coronavirus. Donald Trump talked about the war against the Chinese virus, that must be won, calling himself a war president. Emmanuel Macron, who addressed French citizens in a 20 minute stream, repeated several times: “We are at war.”
How does this labeling affect people? What are the psychological consequences? What can we actually read from between the lines and which in particular are the dangers of this (mis-)use of language? Which are the territories that the government could not only defend in this war, but also conquer? Can we talk about the coronavirus differently and more constructively? In what way?
We’re not at war
Inés Olza is a researcher at the Institute for Culture and Society at the University of Navarra in Spain. Having heard the Spanish prime minister and leaders of other countries talking about a strong enemy, a coordinated strategy, and the final defeat of the virus, she launched the initiative ReframeCovid. The idea is to try to limit this linguistic frame and instead to offer a different, alternative one.
Olza told the weekly Vreme: “These metaphorical expressions that exploit the war frame can be useful and effective in a first stage of the crisis. They serve to make people think about how important this crisis is and to call for discipline and self-limitation, which meant to stay at home. But once we’re all concerned and we’re all staying home, maintaining these war metaphors can have counter-effects or can lead to unwanted feelings and to unwanted political stages.”
The experience from Spain showed that after harsh measures and isolation, which, as the number of infections and dead constantly grew and did not bring about good results quickly enough, people became frustrated. They felt somewhat deceived, but they were still called to a battle, while the war metaphors created additional fear and anxiety.
“We’re not at war, we’re trying to cope with a health emergency, a health crisis. If we accept that we’re at war against the virus, politicians and institutions can finally gain some territory, that can mean some cuts in democracy,” emphasizes Olza, adding that emergency states are good for mobilizing the population, but can also be exploited to limit our freedom and our control, that we as citizens need to have of the governments. Hence the government might think that it could do whatever it wants.“ And all this can lead to unwanted scenarios of freedom cuts,” Olza concluded.
The war frame can also be used to silence other voices.
“From a psychological perspective the use of words that refer to war has specific consequences, most of these are good for the political leaders,” as Tobias Rothmund, professor for Media Psychology at the Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena, said to Vreme. On the one hand, citizens unify behind their political leader, because in times of war any conflict within the society is “weakening the power of the society to fight the enemy”. Our interviewee furthermore stated that “a situation of war” – if the current situation is being presented as such – also allows political leaders to ignore or violate rules of law and to act in an authoritarian manner.
“Finally, war is a situation of good and bad, black and white. The thinking in nuances and the acceptance of uncertainty are rather uncommon in times of war,” emphasizes Professor Rothmund.
What could that mean? In such a setting, every criticism can be dismissed, reconsidering the measures as well. Because in a war of “good and bad”, there are only two sides. And if the government is on the good side, since it unquestionably intends to save people’s lives, then all those who see its wrong steps will be a priori disqualified as malevolent enemies etc.
Metaphors and the region
The linguist Aleksandra Salamurović, leading researcher in the project “DiskursWestBalkan”, who investigates public communication within the Western Balkans from the University in Jena, analyzed the first addresses held by the region’s presidents. According to her, those first denominations developed into the main frames of all subsequent forms of language usage as well as actions that arose from these frames. “The global trend of naming the current pandemic a crisis was taken over, for example, in the first speeches held by the presidents of Croatia and Serbia. Etymologically, the word crisis means a turning point, and in Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian this term contains the verb “to move” in its root (preokret). In contrast to Zoran Milanović, who talked several times of a crisis in the beginning, but also in the course of his first speech, thus metaphorically sets the situation of the pandemic in Croatia in the cognitive frame of movement, Aleksandar Vučić puts the current situation already in the first sentence under the heading of war,” explains Salamurović. She adds that the basic features of the war metaphor are to evoke polarization, while its primary function on the emotional level, as shown by numerous linguistic studies, is that it causes feelings of threat, fear and panic.
As Salamurović further explains, its use and especially its effect, however, depend on a large scale on the context of its usage, that is, on who uses it, when it is used, how frequent and which are other linguistic and rhetorical means following that metaphor.
In his aforementioned speech, Serbia’s president draws a discursive line to the actual wars from Serbian history: “A specific cognitive scenario arises from this, according to which the current pandemic is the continuance of all Serbian wars, from the Balkan wars to the last ones at the end of the last century.”
Taking into consideration that this is the third state of emergency within the past 20 years and that we’ve got very recent wars on this account, the effect of these metaphors is reinforced and they cause different emotions than they would, for instance, if we were talking about Scandinavian countries.
“In that sense, I consider the excessive usage of war metaphors in Serbia at this stage absolutely dysfunctional from the point of view of wanting to encourage citizens to take the desired action, which is not to empty the stores in panic, to consider each other as enemies and so on, but to rather encourage solidarity, seriousness and responsibility, as much towards oneself as towards others,” Salamurović concludes.
Finally, there is another matter that we should not lose from our sight. As highlighted during the conversation with Inés Olza, somewhere real wars are taking place and we are not capable of bearing the horror, the complex happenings of actual wars, to the extent to which we cope with a serious and painful crisis, but yet still a health crisis.
Could it be different?
What would be a responsible and constructive use of language? Professor Rothmund thinks that in the general uncertainty and flood of disinformation and speculation that false experts and news people are prone to in such situations, the most important thing is that politicians are clear, that they communicate transparently about the things they know and that they admit what they don’t know.
When talking about the coronavirus, Aleksandra Salamurović enumerates several alternatives, which would be effective for use in public – those for instance, that picture the pandemic as a journey or an exercise. “On a Chinese media platform, the current situation is described as follows: ‘China and the world are rowing on the same river with wind and waves.’ Both metaphorical scenarios, those of a journey and learning, foreground a finishing point, a positively conceived aim and actions of solidarity, responsibility that everyone can meaningfully participate in.”
Finally, it is important to point out some good examples of speeches about Covid-19 that could easily enter textbooks. What, for example, characterizes the speeches of the German chancellor Angela Merkel? She analyses the situation as a problem to be solved and speaks of possible approaches, without emotiveness, intimidation, paternalism. She speaks about why certain steps are important in order to overcome the crisis, which is the citizens’ responsibility in this and why solidarity is important, she neither prays nor begs for anything, she does not threaten or blame anyone, but rather addresses the citizens, speaking about economy, democracy and realistic forecasts.
And when it comes to the anti-coronavirus measures in Germany, Professor Rothmund summarizes it:
„Some people here in Germany raise the question, whether the power in today’s society and beyond lies in the hands of politicians or scientists.”
Sidebar: Everyone’s responsibility
Aleksandra Salamurović emphasized, in what way public communication – which is poorly damaged like ours in Serbia – can be cured: “Distinguished Croatian linguist Dubravko Škiljan said in his study Javni jezik (Public Language) that the importance of public communication is reflected in the fact that it provides the community with the character of a structured and complete society (…). It is obvious from readers’ comments on social media and on various media platforms that many take a very critical stand towards the current communication patterns and that they’re aware of the devastating effect it has on the implementation of such an all-encompassing society. However, both good and bad examples of public communication should not be analyzed in isolation, but rather as a continuum with the constant possibility of change, meaning a turn. One of the constructive approaches to encourage such a turn is, in my opinion, not to repeat, if possible, the negative examples which are criticized, because in doing so, they are being cognitively consolidated. One should rather always try to look for alternatives for what one would like to see as a consequence of one´s words. Language is action that always evokes reaction. In the current pandemic, the media, for example, should whenever possible avoid to repeat statements of those politicians, who misuse language, and should offer different solutions. Alternative linguistic forms that can be used today are also basics for the period after the pandemic. In this sense, we are all responsible for the use of language.”
Translation: Clemens Wigger
Proofreading: Milica Sabo & James Stephen