Gwen Ifill of the Lehrer News Hour recently commented, almost blandly, that she hardly heard anyone talking about a “War on Drugs” any more. This is true in many policy circles, but this label and its associated linguistic terms still survive in the media and in the culture. Sending this language to the dustbin of history would be a worthy goal for policy reformers.
Some people would respond “I will not stop calling it a war on drugs until war-like policy X is stopped!” (Where X is overcrowded prisons, no knock raids by police in riot gear etc.).
This may be a logical fallacy however, in that it assumes that the language itself doesn’t justify the objected-to policy. As any careful student of politics knows — and as cognitive psychology research teaches — words can cue us consciously and unconsciously to think that certain actions are more or less justifiable. We feel differently about a “death tax” versus an “estate tax”, a “homeless person” versus a “vagrant”. Sometimes it’s not even the literal content of the words that affect us but the images and emotions they evoke: Clinicians have more punitive reactions to “alcohol abuse patients” than “problem drinking patients” simply because the word “abuse” evokes violent images, fear and anger in the listener.
War on Drugs language has similar effects, both in ways that are obvious and in ways that operate below the level of consciousness. If everyone simply stopped using “drug war” language, doors that are closed to us might swing open, including in places we that were literally unthinkable “in a time of war”.