29. Jul 2020 - Aleksandra Salamurović

According to Croatian linguist Dubravko Škiljan, the importance of public communication is reflected in the fact that it provides the community with a sense of a structured and complete society. But what happens with public communication during a societal crisis such as the current Covid-19 pandemic?

One of the most salient linguistic features of the current communication about Covid-19 on a global scale is the extensive use of metaphors, in particular war metaphors. Metaphors are ubiquitous in language use because they enable us to explain something abstract or less known by referring to something more concrete or common. Besides the informational value, metaphors usually evoke specific emotions, which in turn can stimulate desired actions. This is why metaphors are often regarded as a means of persuasion par excellence. Since the recent lockdown was an unprecedented reaction to the Covid-19 outbreak, and there are still many unknowns about the virus, it is very likely that public actors will use metaphors to a considerable extent in order to describe and grasp the situation or to explain what people are supposed to do.

Of all the metaphors available in our cultural and linguistic experience, it seems that there is a particular propensity for war metaphors in the context of Covid-19. French president  Emmanuel Macron, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán and US President Donald Trump are arguably the most prominent political leaders who recently made use of this type of metaphor. In a 2018 article, Stephen J. Flusberg and his colleagues have listed numerous examples of war metaphors employed by political leaders, institutions and media. They argue convincingly that war metaphors can be found in public rhetoric with regard to every domain of our lives: food (e.g., when The Guardian speaks about “The Great Gluten Wars”), economics (see Gerald Ford’s “War on Inflation”), social problems (e.g., Nixon’s “War on Drugs”), the environment (e.g. headlines like “UN Declares War on Ocean Plastic”), or health issues (e.g., Nixon’s “War on Cancer”). The authors conclude that the main motive for using the war metaphor (and indeed its effect) is to evoke fear and the feeling of urgency, especially at the beginning of an action. Several studies in linguistics, communication studies and psychology, however, have shown that war metaphors are not always a wise choice. For instance, in the health domain the reaction to such phrases may be that people who are dealing with cancer may feel like ‘not fighting hard enough’ or ‘not being good soldiers’. Using war metaphors for issues where there is no discernible end point can also be problematic (e.g. “war on poverty”). More importantly, the authors conclude that the implication and consequences of the use of this metaphor depend largely on context, that is, on the public actors using them, on cultural and societal properties, and on the type of experience the community had with wars. This is in line with the general observation by some cognitive linguists that the use of metaphors is not only individually but – with regard to public communication – even more culturally embedded.

Every metaphor evokes a particular frame or scheme that follows a certain basic structure: to employ something common or known in order to actually refer to something abstract or unknown. War metaphors introduce a conventional frame that is based on experience with well-known elements such as in-group (us) and out-group (the enemy), shared goals, decisions, hierarchy between those involved, like political leaders, ‘the people’ and specific experts (like, for example, medical staff, virologists), and temporal and spatial hierarchy. The outcome of the war is usually coded in a binary fashion: it is either victory of defeat.

How is all this reflected in the current public communication in Serbia? On 15 March 2020 President Aleksandar Vučić introduced the state of emergency, in the presence and with the consent of Prime Minister Ana Brnabić and President of the Parliament, Maja Gojković, both members of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (Srb. Srpska napredna stranka - SNS). The trio made this decision after Vučić, a member of SNS himself, had declared that the Parliament could no longer gather due to health risks. At 8 pm the same evening, Vučić gave a long speech to the nation which he began with: “Ladies and gentlemen, dear citizens of the Republic of Serbia, as of today Serbia has been at war against an invisible enemy, a dangerous and vicious enemy that our country must defeat.” The explicit war metaphor was followed by “our Serbia has to win” and “this is going to be the hardest battle for our people, a battle for our elderly and sick, they are the target of this severe attack.” In the last paragraph he then combined the metaphorical war frame with reference to historical wars:

I would now like to say something to all our people: Since 1804, from the first day of the emergence of the modern Serbian state, we, my fellow citizens, were dying, dying, dying. And it is good to appreciate our history, our tradition and to show how much we love our country. We have not yet recovered from two Balkan wars, the First World War, the Second World War, the wars of the 1990s.

Covid-19 was thus just another war that citizens of Serbia had to fight. He ended his speech by stating: “And to conclude: giving up is out of the question. Giving up was never an option and will never be an option for Serbia. We will fight and win. Long live Serbia.”

This very first framing of the Covid-19 crisis by the Serbian president had long-lasting consequences for the public discourse: the politicians continued to evoke a palpable risk of death through the use of metaphors, metonymies (“not even Lešće, Novo groblje, Centralno and Bežanijsko (all cemeteries) will be enough“) and similes (“like an Italian scenario“). Additionally, the leading epidemiologist Predrag Kon was promoted to military rank of a sergeant, and citizens were divided up into ‘allies’ and ‘culprits’, the latter referring, for example, to Serbian migrant workersin other countries, who wanted or had to return to Serbia and were accused of having brought the virus to Serbia.

On 11 April 2020, during the 60 hours curfew in Serbia, someone asked on Twitter: "Do you also have a feeling that somebody will take you down with a sniper rifle when you go out on the balcony?" One of the responses was: “Indeed, I have a sniper rifle grandma (Srb. snajper-baba) opposite my balcony. If looks could kill, you would have RIPed me a long time ago”.

The use of war metaphors in political discourse in Serbia has been ascertained even before the nationalist-oriented SNS came to power in 2012. However, the cultural and societal context since 2012, and the authoritarian style of government by the leading party and Vučić reinforce the effects of this particular metaphor. The authors of several qualitative studies have emphasized that this metaphor is “deeply engraved into Serbian historical and cultural context.” They have pointed to the extremely negative impact this metaphor has for public communication in Serbia, given the experience of real war during the last thirty years.

Thus returning to the question posed in the beginning, we can conclude that the use of war metaphors in Serbian public discourse in the context of the current Covid-19 crisis accounts for ever stronger disintegration and disorder. This manifests itself also in the latest protests in Serbia inflamed by the announcement of yet another curfew cycle by the president last week. Indeed, when he defended the decision to have yet another lockdown he argued that the war against the virus was not over yet and that he would guarantee that “Serbia will beat Corona in twenty days.”

About the author

Aleksandra Salamurović is a senior researcher at the Institute for Slavonic and Caucasian Studies, University of Jena.

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