Ideological Struggle: Language in the Era of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to directly cause terrible mortality and morbidity, and it indirectly contributes to a plethora of adverse consequences, including increased economic inequality and mental health disorders. Further, the pandemic is being used as a wedge issue by reactionary extremists in the promotion of regressive goals including stimulating numerous forms of disaster capitalism. A critically vitally important related–yet under-considered– impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, is the acceleration of a pre-existing trend in ideological struggle: the increasingly prevalent use of military metaphors and terminology that frame issues in ways that normalize militarization and violence, and which simultaneously impose limits on discourse generally, and on COVID-19 and public health responses specifically.

The abundant use of military metaphors is clearly demonstrated by phrases such as “increasing our armamentarium of weapons to combat COVID-19,” or such as when Vice President Harris announced that “the virus hit our shores” and when President Biden announced plans to deploy 1,000 military medical professionals to “support overburdened hospitals” in US cities. A particularly vile instance was a recent NY Daily News headline which announced that “kids enter COVID-19 crosshairs”. These announcements, and the words chosen to make them, should prompt, among other things, increased recognition of the adverse impact the use of military metaphors, related terms and the frames they evoke, and of the strategic value of their avoidance or minimization. Both with respect to COVID-19 and more generally, the strategic value of utilizing metaphors and frames that better reflect progressive goals of equitable public health, community, solidarity and peace cannot be understated.

Progressive struggle requires action through a range of domains, including the ideological. A key component of ideological struggle is the choice of words used to promote and support important positions–a strategy regressive extremist forces have recognized and effectively exploit. For example, Republican strategist Frank Luntz emphasized that Republicans should never speak of a “public health care option”, “oil drilling” or an “estate tax”, but should instead only refer to a “government mandate”, to “energy exploration” or to a “death tax”; while promoting reactionary, neoliberal positions, he has nonetheless correctly stressed the strategic importance of using word choices that make use of the conscious or subconscious emotional content of words.

Another example is the very intentional change in discourse from the term anti-abortion to the term pro-life in the 1970s by anti-choice activists in response to Roe v. Wade. To counter this framing, the movement to ensure safe and legal reproductive health choice shifted to using the term pro-choice. However, the terms pro-life and right-to-life almost invariably resonate positively through frames evoked by the use of the word life (and the word right), while the word choice may resonate for some, but also allows for equivocation. The point is that the way we refer to things, and the words we choose, are critical tools of ideological struggle.

As Alexander Cockburn has highlighted, some words have ‘counterrevolutionary’ potential and these words should be both recognized and avoided by progressive efforts. Raymond Williams noted that certain words are binding, in that they open or close ways of seeing culture and society. These observations describe and underlie, explicit potent strategies of reactionary, regressive extremists. Not only have these strategies been suboptimally implemented by progressives, but the failure to consistently use strategies that attend to the emotional content of words means that progressive efforts are doubly undercut both by the absence of the beneficial impact these strategies could have, and by the adverse impact of regressive forces exploiting this weakness.

George Carlin, with both brilliant humor and insight, pointed to the changes over time in words commonly chosen to describe the traumatic effects of war on soldiers and others. The WWI-era term shell shock made direct reference to weaponry and forcefully highlighted the bad mental health consequences (when is shock ever good?). The much milder WWII-era term battle fatigue, while still directly referencing war, minimized war’s impact, reducing it to a natural condition of exhaustion, which should improve with rest and which may evoke a frame of individual weakness. A subsequent shift to the term post-traumatic stress disorder, which despite reflecting the concept of trauma, eliminates any direct reference to war and fully medicalizes and individualizes the impact of war so that it appears as a disease arising in an individual, again perhaps due to some weakness on the individual’s part and which certainly implies the appropriateness of an individual-level remedy rather than a structural-level solution. Re-framings such as this mystify by abstracting the consequences of war from the activity of war itself and obscuring what should be the focus of prevention, i.e., ending war, which is the fundamental cause of shell shock.

The changes in word choice Carlin described, involved removing explicit military references from discussions of the horrific consequences of war, obscuring and then eliminating any reference to the connection between the human consequences of war and war itself. This is a prevalent ideological strategy in the language used by regressive, reactionary groups and mainstream media, intended to minimize popular objections to war.

A simultaneous trend in English writing and speech in the media and elsewhere, and in ideological struggle, is the increasing prevalence and embeddedness of military metaphors, in speech and written media, to refer to non-military things. For example, speaking of efforts to control COVID-19 as needing to combat it through surveillance and capturing relevant data so we can marshal and target resources and deploy more boots on the ground and on the frontlines to win the war is speaking in military metaphors. The prevalent saturation of speech (and thinking) with military metaphors normalizes, and even ennobles, proposals such as using military actions to “support overburdened hospitals”, of sending troops to address shortages of health care professionals or health care supplies – and diverts the focus of attention from the fact that these shortages are due, among other things, to the massively disproportionate allocation of federal funds (themselves collected through massively regressive tax codes) to the Pentagon and national surveillance budgets rather than to public health budgets, and to having a for-profit health care, pharmaceutical and medical supply complex. This trend to increasingly use military terms and metaphors serves to normalize and naturalize concepts of war and aggression and suggests the normativity, validity, and indeed righteousness, of war and violence as appropriate responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and to any issues arising in all domains of human experience.

Similarly, referring to COVID-19-related public health and safety measures as lockdowns frames these efforts as punitive, and obscures the fact that these measures are intended (and proven) to reduce population-level morbidity and mortality (i.e., to improve the health of communities). Using the lockdown metaphor evokes clearly negative understandings of, and disapproving responses to, these measures. Cognitive linguist George Lakoff highlighted that metaphors involving directionality (e.g., up or down) are pervasive and resonant; that is, the word up evokes deep frames of positivity (‘things are looking up’) while down evokes more negative frames (‘feeling down’, ‘being down and out’). Referring to being locked, whether down or up, clearly conveys constraints and at some level (whether consciously or subconsciously) equates following these public health interventions with being incarcerated.

Frames such as lockdown also bind and constrain discourse itself. Use of this term facilitates presenting the issue as ‘whether or not there should be lockdowns’, which is structurally similar to posing a question such as ‘have you stopped stealing?’ This yes/no question allows only two possible responses; one can say “no” and admit to current theft, or say “yes”, and admit to past theft. Favoring lockdowns can suggest a willingness to deny someone freedoms, while instead favoring public health and safety measures suggests a concern for the well-being of all.

There is no doubt that such COVID-19 public health and safety measures are not only inconvenient but can also have important adverse effects such as contributing to isolation, loneliness or the exacerbation of mental health disorders. Yet, equating these measures with actual incarceration is not only a false equivalence, it is one that may contribute to the false notion that these public health measures constitute a substantive, unacceptable infringement on freedoms. Freedom, and the related concept of rights, are slippery concepts with a long history of protean meanings. “Freedom” or “the right” to do what? The word freedom historically has been used to refer to things as opposed as the right not be enslaved and the right to make money by enslaving people. Yet no one says “I am opposed to freedom” when the type of freedom meant is unintentionally or intentionally left vague. So, if use of the term lockdown makes it easy to falsely claim that these public health and safety measures are ‘contrary to freedom’; why do that? Better to refer to closures or restrictions on public spaces or activities such as requirements for face masks as public health safety measures, or as creating safe spaces for people, much more positive terms that accurately reflect the intent and effect of these measures.

It is important to recognize and reject metaphors, words and frames which evoke or support notions of supposed freedoms that function as glorified individualistic selfishness, such as putative rights to refuse to participate in collective activities which promote individual and community health and safety, such as wearing face masks, and which essentially posit a ‘right’ to put others at risk by spreading COVID-19. Further, it is important to recognize that such individualistic claims also reinforce the capitalist dogma of every man for themselves (phrase left gendered to reflect the potent links between capitalism and gender oppression), a dogma that undercuts any sense of the importance and value of community.

Using accurate, yet positive (or even neutral), words to promote the widespread acceptance of COVID-19 vaccination (and other vaccinations) is vital. For example, it is better to use words such as vaccination or vaccines, and to avoid words such as shots or jabs that are unnecessarily negative, fear-inducing or discouraging, and which contribute to the normalization of the militarization of public health and communities.

One other phrase applied to the COVID-19 pandemic that obscures important realities is that of essential workers or heroes. While these terms do appropriately give much deserved acknowledgment to people who continue to work in workplaces outside their homes which put them at increased risk of getting COVID-19, it is simultaneously a reflection of capitalism’s need for labor power, regardless of the risk to the worker. In fact, the phrase essential worker should be understood as a euphemism and extreme obfuscation of the fact that capitalism treats workers as disposable humans, and often does so through racialized, gendered, low-income and high-occupational risk labor. The facts that manual laborers and many others cannot work remotely, while many people doing work based on mental labor can, are key factors contributing to the very significant racial-, ethnic-, class- and occupation-based disparities in COVID-19 morbidity in which Black, Hispanic and oppressed groups have higher case, hospitalization and death rates than White people in the U.S.

Given the pervasiveness and near-constant amplification of military metaphors and terminology strategically chosen to promote reactionary and regressive agendas in multiple intersecting and reinforcing media, it becomes extremely difficult to resist lapsing into the use of words and phrases promoted through media which undercut progressive messages and agendas. Yet it is critical to do so. Words evoke specific frames which, consciously or subconsciously, imply additional meanings; adopting the terms and words which have regressive rather than progressive meanings and implications can restrict the range of options allowed by these framings, and can unintentionally discourage the adoption of safety and health-promoting behaviors and measures. Further, words can hide real causes and real effects, can contribute to the normalization and acceptance of the militarization of life, and can inadvertently contribute to the increased adverse impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on individuals and our communities.

An important progressive strategy is to actively recognize words used by regressive, reactionary forces and to both refrains from amplifying these frames, and to instead use and promote the reliance on metaphors, words and frames which promote more equitable public health, the importance of community, demilitarization and peace.

David C. Perlman is a physician and researcher, and Ashly E. Jordan is a research epidemiologist. Both have been involved in efforts to bring health care and prevention to oppressed communities. They write from New York City.