Blog Archives

Language and its Power

terrorism and language

Language certainly has the power to direct you towards pre-selected portions of reality. It makes it possible for false comparisons and confusion over categories of meaning. For example, there is a common statement that circulates in the public that is not only a facile generality but dangerous. If you actually believe this statement, if you are ensnared by its rhetorical trickery and literally accept the two propositions as being equal, then it reveals you as a less than rigorous thinker who cannot recognize or make important distinctions. If you accept the equivalence of the two propositions you are likely to put yourself and others in danger by being paralyzed with an inability to act and justify definitional clarity that allows for clear decision-making. The dangerous cliché I’m talking about is:

One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

If you believe this then Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda are the same as what might be considered a defensible national liberation movement. The semantic foundation of the cliché implies that nothing matters except perspective. It’s a cliché championed by terrorists because they want to present their own causes as positive and justified. And the logical extension of this thinking is that no violent act can be too odious because it is all in the service of national liberation. Terrorists love this phrase because it blurs the distinction between goals and the means to achieve the goals, when in fact no political movement can serve as a justification for terrorism.

This issue has emerged again given the events in Paris. And interestingly, ISIS is so extreme there has been very little political justification for their violence.
This cliché cannot stand and we need more political leaders and public intellectuals to condemn it. There needs to be public discussion and argument. Freedom fighters who are truly struggling against oppression do not kill innocent people and sow panic and confusion – murderers do. Why would the democracies and liberal political regimes around the world allow the word “freedom” to be used in this way? ISIS does not bring freedom they carry fear and oppression. The best reading on this is by Boaz Ganor and can be found here. It is crucial to make the distinction between terrorism and national liberation.
Let’s try to be a little clearer about terrorism. As Ganor describes, terror is (1) violent. Peaceful protests and demonstrations are not terrorism. Terrorism is (2) political. Violence without politics is simply criminal behavior. And (3) terrorism is against civilians with the goal of creating fear and confusion. It mixes with the media to produce anxiety. So what is not terrorism? Terrorism is not accidental collateral damage when the original target is military. Using citizens as shields places the onus of responsibility on those manipulating the citizenry, not those who initiated the attack if it was against a military target. It is also important to recognize those situations where targets of violence are clearly military and uniformed soldiers. Using guerrilla tactics does not necessarily mean terrorism.
It is important, too, that motives be taken into consideration. The real thorny problem is the idea that any form of national liberation – believed sincerely by a presumably oppressed group – justifies violence that is not considered terrorism. This perpetuates the dangerous relativism of the cliché. The hard mental work of distinguishing terrorism from other forms of violence is important if we are going to pass legislation to protect the public, have effective international cooperation, and assist those states struggling with terrorism.
If enough people genuinely accept this relativist cliché then all bets are off. Any sort of violence can be justified and the international community will have a collective shrug of its shoulders essentially saying, “who cares” because someone considers the violent group “freedom fighters” wrapped in vacuous rhetoric designed to justify violence. As difficult as it is to fashion a precise definition of terrorism, it is equally as difficult to imagine accepting ISIS and jihadist attacks against the French as the work of “freedom fighters.”

Note: This post was first published December 23, 2013

The Agony of Contentious Language in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

bomb GazaThere is a tendency, even for those who know better, to think of language as a simple carrier of meaning. That is, language is the mechanism that packages up meaning and does the work of transferring it from one person to another. So we refer to the “war” in the Middle East and this term “war” carries the vast and complex array of images and meanings that attend to the concept of war. But language is a symbol system that connects a sound or visual image with meaning and this connection is tenuous and changeable. It is not stable and simple. Language not only reflects cultural differences and nuances of meaning but also” constitutes” and creates meanings. Calling the Israel Palestine conflict a “war” implies images of purposeful behavior on the part of both parties to engage in violence, identify territory that one side is defending, and images of clashes between the two sides. But this does not describe the Israel Palestine conflict very accurately.

There are two qualities of language that are pertinent here: the first is this constitutive quality of language where if I refer to something in a particular way I can influence your perception of it and “constitute” a version of reality. This is a relatively simple notion. If I use a racial or ethnic epithet to describe someone or their group I am creating an image of them. I can manipulate the importance of an issue by changing the way I refer to it. During the Vietnam War there used to be “search and destroy missions” but this made the image of the American soldier to aggressive and violent so the term was changed to “reconnaissance in force.” Labeling the unintended killing of innocents as “collateral damage” is a well-known example of constituting desired meaning. These sorts of things are not simple verbal trickery but attempts to alter how you understand an action. A recent article in the Forward noted how the situation in Gaza changed Hebrew and the Hebrew adapted to the conflict. In the beginning the Israelis referred to the fighting in Gaza as mivtza or an “operation” and not as milhama which is the everyday term for “war” in Hebrew.

So is Israel engaged in an “operation” or a “war?” The implications for word choice are clear enough. War implies a greater commitment of effort and resources along with potential existential threats and of course the legal right to benefits for soldiers of various types. This is all less true of a simple “operation.” A culture, especially the military dimension of the culture, tends to build a linguistic structure and vocabulary around its own narrative and political interests. This is fine and understandable but remains an obstacle to peace and changing the language into a structure of peace and conflict management that is necessary for resolution.

The second maddening quality of language is the obverse of its power to parse reality and define it. It is the fact that language is never sufficiently precise to describe the reality you desire; it never quite captures or always falls a little short of just what you want to express. For example, we have the words “tall” and “short.” We use these words easily and regularly and describe people who are tall” or “short.” We are comfortable with these two terms and they easily describe the realities of “tall” and “short.” But what about all those places between “tall” and “short?” What about all those portions of reality that don’t fit into “tall” or “short?” We are stuck with clumsy modifiers such as “sort of tall,” or “a little bit short.” Is the conflict in Gaza an “operation” or “a war?” And if it is something in between or “sort of” both then what language do we use to describe it? It is an asymmetrical conflict but what all is exactly included in that semantic category?

Language is powerful enough and has the ability to either stimulate or constrain conversations. Perhaps one day the structure of language around the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians will include some of the following: “dialogue” (the search for mutuality), “pluralism” (a recognition and respect for differences), “kiyum mishutaf” (a true shared in common experience), “Sulha” (Arab conflict resolution).

The noted political theorists Charles Tilly and Sidney Tarrow have recognized how culture laden language is. They have demonstrated how examining changes in language help understand long-term changes in behavior. In particular these two theorists have studied the language of contention and demonstrated how it can be creative and facilitative of a transformation from one state of contention to something else – namely, something less contentious.




Hebrew and Russian Language Vitality and Conflict

One way to track the power and influence of a culture is by watching the shifts in language use. People are attached to the language they speak and the culture it embodies. When a group speaks a language it’s because they perceive that language to have standing and relative importance.
Russia may have just asserted itself and flexed its muscles but it’s really a weakened national polity as evidenced by the erosion of the Russian language around the world. As Marshall Singer reports, in his Foreign Affairs article “Language Follows Power” Russia is no longer the official language among many of its republics and the countries of the old Soviet bloc. Many state powers are turning away from Russia and its language and showing preferences for English and French.
Languages get used when they are functional and vital. A vital language is responsive to new usages and terminology and changes to reflect an active culture. Hebrew is a good example of a restored and revitalized language that is only spoken by about 8 million people but exercises a power beyond its numbers because of its ties to sectors of the economy and popular culture as well as traditional religious groups.
As nationalism broke out among non-Russian nationalities they began to reject Russian culture and especially the language. Singer also reports that the publication of books and the production of television programs has decreased in Russian but increased in other native languages. The Russian language has faded with the power of the Russian political entity – recent militarism notwithstanding.
Hebrew, on the other hand, within its national boundaries is so strong that it has drowned out some minority languages. Freeburg in a study of the revival of Hebrew offers interesting data on how other smaller languages in Israel (Karaim, Ladino, and Yiddish) have almost been threatened out of existence. The revitalization of Hebrew is typically pointed to as a tremendous success story but Freeburg suggests that the negative consequences of the revitalization of Hebrew have been overlooked. Still, as Russian and Hebrew evolve they change their relationship with the process of conflict resolution.
The Role of Language and Conflict Resolution
The assumption of universality is one of the first mistakes conflict resolution theorists make. In other words, they emphasize the common structural features of conflicts. Or, at least what they believe to be the common features. A Westerner will talk about “negotiation” or “reconciliation” and assume that these concepts are shared by the conflicting parties. The Westerner will assume common patterns and regularities even if terminology is different.
But Raymond Cohen has written cogently about emphasizing variations rather than resemblances. The differences between conflicting parties are important because meanings carry cultural weight and depict different versions of reality. Peace may seem to be a familiar enough idea but its use by various cultures contains characteristic distinctions and meanings. As Cohen explains, in English to “compromise” means to balance concessions and is a very laudable and positive term. But Arabic lacks such terminology and even the ones they use can imply a compromise over a principle of honor or justice which is to be avoided not embraced. Moreover, Israelis argue in a direct and pragmatic manner and consider deep philosophical arguments over principles to be paralyzing. But in Arabic there is no word for pragmatism and it is offensive to neglect principles.
Managing and resolving conflicts is an unavoidable human activity that is steeped in cultural values and differences. Consequently, meanings and implications of conflict resolution have accumulated over the millennia and found their way into the deep semantic structure of language. These semantic structures must be extracted and re-formed until conflicting parties see the nature of conflict from the same perspective – or at least the perspective that is “close enough.”


%d bloggers like this: