My turn: Losing the word war

Posted: Thursday, July 22, 2010

Leonard Pitts Jr. had an excellent editorial entitled "Battle of words in War on Drugs" in the July 19 Juneau Empire. In it, he points out that we have spent untold billions of dollars, ruined untold millions of lives and racked up the highest incarceration rate in the world to fight drug use and he concludes that the War on Drugs is a failure. To help clarify just why it is such a failure I'd like to expand on his thinking about the battle of words a bit.

In order to survive as a congruent civilization, all cultures must determine how they will categorize the human behaviors of its members and thereby develop social mores, regulations, laws, rules and social expectations which help to make life more predictable and minimize social chaos. The primary behavioral categories are good, bad, sick, stupid, and crazy. Thus social means are developed to reward the good, punish the bad, cure the sick, educate the stupid, and contain the crazy.

How any given behavior is categorized has an enormous impact on how the society responds and how it employs its resources to address the behavior. Because drug use was labeled 'bad,' we have, as Pitts points out, spent untold billions of dollars, ruined untold millions of lives and racked up the highest incarceration rate in the world, and completely failed to solve the problem. We focused nearly all of our resources on punishing the bad guys. Thus the rampant incarceration, coupled with extensive federal, state, and local agencies and departments engaged in everything from clandestine investigations to high school drug-testing programs. Also, there is now a strong focus on looking outside ourselves to solve the problem by trying to 'close the borders,' putting pressure on Mexico, Columbia, Afghanistan, and many other countries to stop trafficking in drugs.

Suppose we had labeled drug use stupid instead of bad. We might have directed those untold billions of dollars and hours of work to educating our citizens to find other means of satisfying their needs than illicit drugs. Imagine major drug education programs in every public school at every level (not just high school age, but kindergarten through 12th grade) and in every undergraduate college and university. Or, if we had labeled the behavior sick instead of bad, we might have used major portions of those wasted resources to develop extensive drug rehabilitation programs.

The point is, how we label behaviors dictates how we respond. Just in our lifetime alcoholism has gone from bad to sick - thus facilitating a different response to that behavior.

The phrase 'war on drugs' is a metaphor, and as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson point out in their book "Metaphors We Live By," how we use words to frame our behavior often creates our reality. The use of drugs is not something one can go to war with, nor is an ideology something we can go to war with. And yet through the metaphor 'war on terrorism,' we have constructed a reality that has permitted us to invade and occupy two foreign countries which have in no way threatened us and in doing so we have sacrificed the lives of thousands of our own young people and the lives of hundreds of thousands of the citizens who live in those countries.

Meanwhile the 'war on terrorism,' being a misnomer, can't actually be won and must go on forever unless we choose to follow the lead of most other countries in the world and categorize terrorism as a criminal act rather than an act of war. The War on Drugs metaphor does indeed have a valuable lesson to teach us about the cost of the misuse of words.

• Bill Dillon is a retired educator, psychotherapist, organization consultant and is a long-time descriptive linguistics student. He lives in Juneau.

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