Could ‘careless talk’ really cost lives? Jon Flinn looks at the language of the virus as lockdown eases in the UK
Back in the war – the proper one – a whole series of propaganda posters promoted the message that ‘careless talk costs lives’.
The confused content of Boris Johnson’s statement relaxing lockdown measures earlier this month may yet prove damaging in its own way but the greatest communication threats in this Covid-19 era arguably come from ‘careless talk’ which tries to convince us that we are, actually, back at war again.
A quick search through a media monitoring site the other day shows just how much we rely on the language of conflict to describe the virus and its impact. Of 14,000 English language media articles referencing the virus over a 24 hour period, more than 3,700 refer to a ‘war’, battle’, ‘frontline’ or ‘fight’ – or multiple combinations of these words.
It’s not just the tabloids who, according to this non-scientific glimpse at virus narratives, can’t resist language of war. The Mirror cheerfully talks about the ‘frontline heroes doing battle everyday’ but the Telegraph talks about ‘My winners and losers in the war against Covid-19’. You’ll find your own examples.
The colour and drama of media language may play to our baser instincts to be entertained as well as informed but many of us love it, even when it occasionally tips over into sensationalism. It’s not just a matter of personal taste. Love it or not, it is virtually impossible to avoid. When did we not talk about people ‘fighting’ or ‘battling’ illness? And where are the easy synonyms to replace adjectives like ‘frontline’ when referring to those who work in the …well, ‘frontline’?
It’s potentially a problem. Treating the pandemic as a war with a clear and shared enemy perpetuates the unhelpful idea that we are ‘all in it together’, encouraging us to ignore the differences that exist between us (both the inequalities and sometimes even the positive differences).
It helps our leaders because it keeps us in place, eggs us on and points us in what they see as the right direction – angrily facing the evil purple pronged balls as they hurtle towards us like creatures from a straight-to-video sci-fi film.
In this ‘war’ there’s room for lots of heroes – from every NHS worker to Captain Tom – but only this one enemy – and that’s another problem. It keeps things too simple and allows those in positions of power to abrogate their responsibilities by conveniently ignoring the system failures that enabled the virus to appear in the first place and then permitted it to spread at the alarming rate that it has (and, for example, leave hospital staff without the protection they needed).
As the immediate medical emergency passes, these systems – and the people who created and sustain them – must be the absolute focus of our attention and the inquiries that must now take place.
Maybe, as organisations like the Frameworks Institute might agree, we should only talk about the virus within the broader context of these systems because, only by clearly linking the virus to the failed systems that allowed it to emerge and flourish can we hope to influence what has become the dominant narrative around it – and possibly the only way we can avoid lapsing into a complacency about its return.
It won’t be easy. Stories about good and bad, heroes and enemies, write themselves and thrive because they are steeped in the kind of colour and metaphor that appeals to human nature. Strip all that away and replace it with the colourless language of NHS procurement processes, our ever closer interaction with natural world and scientific early warning systems and you’re in for a pretty dull read.
The challenge for all those communicating to influence these systems is to study, identify and exploit more nuanced narratives that can balance the need to engage support and hold the right people and systems to account at the same time – and make the most of the media that are willing to promote these narratives.
Until then maybe we should follow Basil Fawlty’s advice and simply not mention the war.