Peacebuilders need to write a new COVID-19 narrative

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

by Victoria Lumax, Communications Assistant

Hand holding a pencil with a peace sign on the sleeve

War terminology is commonplace in the way the media and governments describe perceived threats: war on poverty, war on drugs, war on terror, and now, war on COVID-19. Aspenia Online, The Guardian, the University of Nottingham, and Higher Education Strategy Associates have all published blog posts or articles that explore the appropriateness of using this comparison, but have neglected to provide alternative language. Those in the peacebuilding field need to be the ones to write a new, hopeful narrative during what can seem like a very dark time. If advocates for peace do not speak out, the belief that good comes out of violence will continue to weave itself into the fabric of our society, producing dangerous attitudes no vaccine can cure.  

The way we use metaphors shape the way we understand the world around us. Language is a framework that describes our experiences just as much as it prescribes them. Oscar Wilde coined a term, anti-mimesis, that means just this—that life imitates art. When individuals and organizations use war metaphors to describe the novel coronavirus, I believe it paints a picture of cynicism and hostility. Many would argue that, despite the harm it can bring, war has a valiant, noble side that deserves emphasis. But it would be neglectful of me to ignore the pain that nations face in wartime, and even long after. Also, on the other hand, if we only contemplate the carnage and not the revolutionary innovations and potential social change that will come out of this crisis, moving forward will be near impossible. While it is important to recognize the great harm COVID-19 has brought and will bring, as well the urgency to address it, it is equally as important to look at this situation as a whole through a constructive lens that orients us toward peace and wellbeing.

The unique thing about this pandemic is that it does not discriminate—anyone is susceptible to this disease—and public officials are using violent, weighty, strong language to convey this real threat. Using war-like language is a way for nations and people groups to convey the gravity of the situation at hand, incite fear and win obedience.  The consequence of the aggressive language being used to describe COVID-19 is the normalization of brutality. Acting as an unintentional form of propaganda, war-talk influences the public to believe in the myth of redemptive violence: the mistaken belief that fighting fire with fire breaks the cycle of violence. World history presents countless examples of redemptive violence intensifying conflicts and worsening relationships. Describing this crisis in a combative way suggests black and white response options. Solutions to the current pandemic will be complex, take time, and require composed, calculated coordination rather than individualistic heroicism.

When tempted to describe COVID-19 with militarized language, we must think critically about the hidden messages we are conveying.

Instead of comparing innovation to weaponry and labeling society’s response to the virus as a “counter attack,” terms like PeaceTech orient us toward our collective capacity for, and common goal of, social good.

Where language such as setting up command posts or putting countries on a “war footing” has us bracing for impact, terms like “capacity building” and “asset-based approaches” shift us from a fear-induced scramble to the creative rearranging of available resources.

Drawing on terms that build solidarity across borders, such as global citizenship and human rights, also steer us away from “us versus them” language that can divide and blame.

Reorienting our language will take creativity on our part, but we are not starting from scratch. Peacebuilders can be leaders in our communities by drawing from the deep pool of resources within our field. For instance, nonviolent communication – a strategy proven to de-escalate hostility within tense dialogue – has a significant role to play in this global conversation.

As seen in the examples above, a peace approach evokes a posture of responsibility and togetherness rather than fear and obedience, mobilizing regular people as well as institutions. There is little room for the “end justifies the means” in peace theory, little room for knights in shining armour, slaying their way to victory. Building long-lasting peace begins with making a commitment to a holistic approach; It starts with building it into the way we live our everyday lives—including our speech. Once peace advocates recognize this blind spot, things will begin to change.