Oh no . . . I might cease to exist . . . Help me! I’m melting! What do you mean you disagree? How could you possibly disagree with me and all my rightness? Really? Life is a circle? And all this time, I thought it was a square? Nooooooooooooooo! Say it isn’t soooooooooooo! Stop existentialing me! I can’t take it anymore!
What on earth is an ‘existential threat’ and how can a nation possibly experience one?
I don’t know about you, but popular jargon sometimes drives me to distraction, if not distinction or worse, extinction.
‘Existential threat’ is one of those jargon-esque phrases that means little but sounds like you’re smart, as best I can tell.
Turns out an existential threat isn’t existential at all – which means it’s probably not much of a threat, either.
ex·is·ten·tial – adjective
1. of, relating to, or affirming existence <existential propositions>
2. a. grounded in existence or the experience of existence : empirical
b. having being in time and space
Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary
According to Jargon Database.Com, an existential threat is:
Surprisingly NOT something one finds covered in a college philosophy textbook, this is regarded as a military or terrorist threat to the existence of something, usually the United States. Usually involves nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons.
Perhaps, to be kind, the reason the term “usually” refers to the United States is that only military and intelligence folk working for the United States government use the term. To be kind.
Or perhaps, the coiners and users of the phrase misapprehend the distinction between self- and universal-interest.
Or, more likely, the astute coiners and users understand that talking points beginning with: “threat to the United States” has, perhaps understandably of late, been understood at home and abroad as an excuse for military adventuring around the globe and a new phrase was needed to conceal or soften or make vague (my personal vote) the exact nature of the threat involved.
To illustrate: had President Franklin Roosevelt declared on December 7, 1941, that the United States faced an “existential threat”, Congress and the American people would have, at best, been confused and at worst, downright angry at their leader’s inability to state the simple fact that we had been attacked and action was called for in response.
When clear and present danger exists, it is, as President Roosevelt himself noted, self-evident.
It is only when the possibilities of threat, the fears of dangers yet determined, the ephemera of the mind sure of a world bent on hostility toward it (there’s a word for that in psychology and it’s not ‘health’) are the narrative of the day that language becomes cloudy and vague, couched in terms which largely have no meaning.
For the fact is, that if taken literally, the world itself is an ‘existential threat’ to me – my existence is in perpetual danger for the most simple of reasons: I am finite, mortal, limited. And one day, I will cease, as will all the other I’s on the planet with me. The how and the when remain unknown to me, but the fact of is a certainty.
So please, please, oh please, my nation’s shapers of dialogue, won’t you please stop the language of perpetual existential threat? Perhaps if you spent more time with your kids; hung out more with your neighbors and friends; read more good literature; strolled more places of art; inhabited more of the natural beauty surrounding you, you would be less afraid. Perhaps.
I know it’s your job to ‘threat assess’. I get it. Really, I do. But language shapes reality and not merely our perception of it. If you truly grasped this, perhaps you would spend less time trying to convince me how dangerous the world is and more in choosing your words wisely.
Just a thought.
So maybe next time you’re in a meeting and someone’s struggling to find the right word or phrase, you might remember the power of words and the law of unintended consequences. Because when you went all existential on me, you didn’t make me feel or be safe. You made me (or tried to) afraid. Of you.
Because, you see, when it comes to threats existential, the only enemy I see before me is you. And I don’t want you as my enemy, for you are my brother. Truly.