Governments the world over have labelled the novel coronavirus as the ‘enemy,’ a targeted threat that we must defeat. An intelligible practice at a time when our commanders need us to assemble in effort, if not in person.
Pathogens do not resemble a traditional foe, of course. No whites of the eye to look into; no war cry to counter. And yet we employ the same lexicon to ‘fight’ coronavirus as we would a corporeal opponent.
The same was true post-9/11, when western leaders declared a ‘war on terror,’ a phrase befitting the extent of the response but practically impossible – terrorists, like each and every one of us, act based on principles, ideology or faith, parts of the human condition that cannot be eradicated.
‘We will win’, Boris’ daily call to arms, is equally misguided. As a species and a nation, we’re likely to survive the coronavirus pandemic, but we won’t make viruses extinct. Indeed ‘winning’ minimises the threat rather than aggrandising it, as we should be.
The greater part of human history has been defined by conflict so it’s little surprise that the jargon used in the trenches has bled into our everyday lives. Deliveroo & Amazon are logistics businesses. Sales agencies have boots on the ground. We’ve all met with deadlines, been introduced to loose cannons or downed a cup of joe.
We’re all-to-used to authoritarian leaders adopting military rhetoric, labelling and then decrying foreign enemies, inciting fear and snatching our freedoms away from us. The less human the rival, the more debased and alien, the greater the danger to our way of life. And this is what we demonstrate against so vociferously; an assault on the shared, cultural values that define our national identity.
During this time of crisis, we’re subject to a similar vernacular. States outline their strategies (another military term) to overcome a virus that has fundamentally changed how we operate and our relationships with each other.
Words guide what's real
Social distancing has driven us indoors and our day-to-day communications online, piped through email, Whatsapp, Slack, Zoom, Teams and Hangouts.
We’re ventriloquists, operating a rash of monosyllabic, pop up puppets. We’re staring into a digital mirror, confronted with jerky, half-paced versions of our virtual lookalikes. We’re inundated with short, piercing messages, distracting our now-isolated working days.
The wholesale shift from analogue to digital removes traditional face-to-face contact, denying context and kerbing nuance. To be understood online, on a limited digital bandwidth and a clouded personal one, we need to distil communication into a simple, unarguable form. The more universally accepted the terms, the more we can rely on them.
After the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008 – the last time the economy nosedived – millions had to ‘downsize’ from larger properties to smaller. The term became commonplace, supporting the notion that those affected were one of many. The word made the idea acceptable.
We don't have a word for this
Politicians and health professionals have struggled to illustrate the risks associated with the current coronavirus outbreak. No wonder. When we look out of the window, we see buildings intact and skies clear. When we walk to the shops, we see people on the streets, void of any imminent jeopardy. Birds are chirping. The world is spinning to a similar, albeit deserted, rhythm.
Contrast this with the language employed. By ascribing the same characteristics to the campaign as we would to a physical threat, we’re intimating that this is a common enemy, one we’ve seen the likes of before. It’s not.
The phrase ‘the new normal’ has been floated regularly. Lockdown, whether enforced or otherwise, is likely to become a mainstream concept, on repeat every year or three.
We need to create new terminology, a vocabulary that applies a concealed threat and rouses a change in behaviour. Unfortunately, we’re unlikely to consider it quite so ‘unprecedented‘ in the future.