The danger of “warfare words”

It’s not uncommon to hear of a group designing a “battle plan” to “wage war” against another group. I’m not talking about tension along the Gaza Strip but right here in safe ol’ North American imagesCAO15UNDpublic policy land. Unions and even some professional groups openly talk about a “war chest” in their campaign against who they have painted as the devil incarnate. Now, these battle phrases are all metaphors of course. But the problem is that our early-formed emotional brain has no imagination or sense of humor. We automatically identify words with actions–be they metaphors or missles.

Work by neurolgoists Joseph Le Doux, Antonio Damasio, and a lot of recent research using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) has proven conclusively that when we hear a word our brain automatically associates pre-assigned emotions to the mental image created, going even as far as to produce the brain chemicals which elevate with the real thing. So the words “doing battle” with a government department automatically conjurs up an image in the average brain of war, fighting, violence, and mayhem while those using the word may be thinking in more prosaic terms. And herein lies two big problems.

The first is that the war-language-users are quickly positioned in the public’s mind as hostile, confrontational, and aggressors who are unlikely to be open to peace and reconciliation. Not a good way to make friends and supporters.

The second big problem with metaphorical warfare language is that the users subconsciously are feeling the emotional hot-circuitry that accompanies intended conflict. Just using such language raises levels of adrenalin and cortisol and other brain chemicals associated with fight and fear. Although “just” a metaphor, the warfare language subconsciously and even consciously turns individuals into warriors than peace-makers. Now, the group membership associated with warfare language may suddenly feel a huge high from battle language–a showing to others of how “tough” they are. But this too is bad news.

When you are feeling attacked, physically or with warfare words, your brain and body automatically responds with defensive measures. And so in short order we see a fiery escalation of threats and language that makes it very difficult for either party to retreat without appearing weak or losing face.

Conflict is common and constant in our personal and professional lives. But experience shows that “waging peace” rather than “waging war” leads to quicker and more permanent solutions. When all is said and done–what was said usually shaped what was done.

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