Are You Really in a “War”?

Seeing your life as a battleground may be hurting you.

Posted Dec 10, 2019

“Veganism and its associated furores are not really about food; they are a culture war being fought on a tablecloth,” says Zoe Williams. “I’m fighting this as a battle of ideas,” states Jordan Peterson about pronouns. Disagreements have always been there and always will be, throughout our lives. But why do so many of us imagine that we’re at the heart of an ongoing war these days?

I think there are multiple reasons. One is that from monuments in public spaces to lessons in history classes, from video games to movies, we’re repeatedly exposed to stories about war. The main conflict dynamic we think and fantasize about may be this war dynamic, where we see one side as heroic and good, the other as evil, and believe that the two must inevitably battle for supremacy.

Source: Pixabay

It’s hardly surprising, then, that when we’re in a real life conflict, we weave a whole myth about being at war. English helps this myth along, being full of war metaphors for disagreements. We shoot down our opponents and even burn and eviscerate them.

In reality, of course, we can choose to engage in disagreements (or not) in many different ways. Each of us has that power. It’s always just one choice to adopt the metaphor or fantasy of being at “war.”

If we decide to take on the war metaphor when we’re in a disagreement, what might the results be? Is seeing ourselves at war making us happier? Is it achieving constructive “wins” for “our side”?

It’s possible, but I have some doubts as well.

Fantasizing that we’re at war can give us a lot of energy to vigorously “defend our positions.” This can help us to feel that we’re part of a group and that our group is moral and righteous. After all, when we’re at war, we’re not looking to work with the other side, we have to be totally loyal to our own. Feeling so integrated into a community is incredibly valuable, but such communities can also create extremely dangerous groupthink and can reduce their members’ wellbeing in the process.

Because of its emphasis on “either you’re with us or against us,” the war metaphor makes disagreements about our identities. This can be very appealing. Not only does it mean something exciting and important is happening, but it protects us from having to reflect on or question our beliefs. War is all about fighting for your life, not stopping to be thoughtful.

In these ways, an innocent or honest sounding metaphor may be creating a whole framework for our disagreements that encourages moralistic judgments, name calling, and simplistic thinking. This limits the range of possibilities we’re likely to consider.

Source: Pixabay

Isn’t the war metaphor accurate though? Polarization and aggressive disagreements do seem to be on the rise in many places, as different values and beliefs come into conflict. When deciding if this means war, though, it’s important to remember that we have the power to pick our metaphors. So if we want, we can call anything a “war,” but we can frame disagreements, even far reaching ones like those about veganism or gender pronouns, as just disagreements.

Keep in mind too our confirmation bias. We tend to look for information that seems to confirm to us that the world is as we want it to be. We can always find ways to believe that we’re victims or that we need to fight back against evil. We can feel like we’ve awoken to the truth that whatever disagreement we’re in isn’t just a disagreement but is part of a secret epic “war.”

It’s easy to make arguments bigger. Sometimes that can be very helpful, as we take into consideration the broader context and gain new perspectives from it. But again, this can cause conflicts to become simplistic and entrenched. We’re no longer disagreeing with someone about what’s happening in this moment, but battling against more and more aspects of their lifestyle and beliefs. We assume we must do this for the very survival of our culture.

Something as poorly defined as a war at the heart of our culture is very hard to prove or disprove. From mainstream journalists to fringe conspiracy theorists, a lot of people are talking about the “war,” but they don’t seem to be talking about the same one “war,” more so to be casting whatever issue they’re concerned about as the center of it. And in 2017 alone three books came out each claiming the US culture war was over, but for different reasons. (What a relief that it’s done!)

In my book I share a lot of evidence that the ideas we start off with about ourselves and about the other side influence how we engage in conflicts, changing how other people engage with us, and perhaps even creating self-fulfilling prophesies.

I’ve also blogged about intriguing research that suggests that we don’t need to feel like we’re enraged and at war in order to be active on issues we care about. So dropping the war metaphor doesn’t mean giving up on the issues that matter to us.

Recent neuroscience seems to support a fact that conflict experts have long suggested: no one else makes us feel anything. Our feelings when we’re in a disagreement may seem to be entirely automatic and out of our control, but they’re still something we ourselves are constructing, not something anyone else is doing to us. Of course the other side provides a stimulus, but the exact response is our own. We don’t have to feel like we’re at “war,” unless we want to.