Thursday, January 31, 2008

Violence and everyday language

In a blog entry recommending a couple of resources focusing on the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, Z writer Paul Street opens with 'Here is a killer musical video from the wonderful left English folk-singer Billy Bragg: "The Loneseome Death of Rachel Corrie," adapted from a famous Dylan song.' Rachel Corrie was killed by an Israeli military bulldozer while undertaking nonviolent resistance against housing demolitions undertaken by the Israeli government. It disappointed me to read Paul use the term 'killer' to describe something dedicated to her work. I considered simply leaving a comment to this effect, but I decided it was more productive to ask him why he used that term.

In a comment, I asked him 'What made you describe the video as a "killer" video? If it is excellent, why not say so? Why use the language of violence and death to describe something that is intended to be uplifting and ennobling? And why did you use this in the context of a woman who died practicing nonviolent resistence?'

He responded with 'Damon please don't come round here unless you have something substanttive to say; tantrums over minor word-choice matters are not worth having online. Life is short.'

Paul's use of language and his response to my questions raises some interesting points. I will consider four of them. First, Paul interpreted my questions as evidence of a tantrum. Or perhaps he was merely trying to be humorous.

Upset Palestinian Boy
Upset Palestinian boy

Either way, it is of course impossible to tell, because our interaction thus far has been completely devoid of important signals like tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. As is well documented, people consistently overestimate their ability to deduce the tone of electronic communication, and tend to interpret text more negatively than they otherwise should.

My questions were genuine and it never occurred to me that they could be perceived so negatively. This was a mistake on my behalf. Another mistake I made was not to connect emphatically to what Paul was promoting, which is nonviolent, creative, life-affirming responses to Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. If I had started out by saying 'I realize that you are describing very important work by courageous people who face hostility and danger on a daily basis' -- if I had shown compassion to Paul -- and then said 'I would like you also to understand how I am feeling in this regard' and then expressed my own thoughts, I then could have received a much more positive response from him. This approach was taught to me by Rabbi David Rosen, and it is something that I personally need to work on a lot more.

The second point is that the choice of words we use really does amount to something substantial. Every word counts. Everyone knows this. That is why racists use language that humiliates people they consider inferior to themselves, and that is why people who fight racism also fight the very language racists use. Sexist language is less common than before because of efforts to encourage use language that is more representative of reality. Therefore Paul's claim that using the word 'killer' is not worth discussing is simply wrong.

Third, using a word like 'killer' to describe something as having excellent qualities betrays the values of social movements that Z embraces. 'Killer' is a word associated violence and murder, and specifically with slayer, exterminator, executioner and so forth. These are not the foundations upon which we want to build our societies. They are the antithesis of nonviolence.

Whether falsely shorn of its ugly brutality and merely labeled 'force', or adorned in the vain glory of terrorism, the sharp edge of violence is its medley of methods that penetrate, starve, bowdlerize, impair, disable and pulverize the body. Its pernicious profundity lingers after the bodily act itself through fear, shock, denial, horror, despair and anguish; it manipulates memory by attaching itself to culture in distorting and occasionally insidious ways, including the language we use.

Israeli Activist and Soldiers in Palestinian Village
Israeli activist and aoldiers in Palestinian village

For those of us who have lived with violence or its direct threat, the choice of words is even more acute than for those whose exposure has been minimal. Waking up in Ramallah to the sound of automatic weapon fire close by is not something that is easily forgotten or dismissed. Having a powerful gun pointed at you by an Israeli sniper who is seriously contemplating gunning you down sinks into the ocean of the mind like molten lava – it burns and sears, eventually hardening into rock. Passing buses in streets far away from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv still prompts me to briefly ponder if they will be blown up -- such is the efficacy of violence.

Fourth, the deepest challenge of all is to always communicate kindly. The mystical side of Islam, Sufism, has a wonderful proverb about speech. It says that one should say something only if it is necessary, true, and kind to all concerned. My meditation teacher, Eknath Easwaran, has written 'Millions of people today believe that unkind, hurtful language is a necessary part of communication. I feel very deeply, but I never use an unkind word. I have very strong convictions, but I never express them in language that would be harmful. I think it is Gandhi who pointed out that those who get angry when opposed or contradicted have no faith in themselves. When you have faith in your convictions, you won’t get angry. I can listen to opposition with sympathy, and yet I will stand by my own convictions whatever the opposition is. . . . When people are impolite to you, that’s the time to be exceptionally polite. When people are discourteous to you, that’s the time to be more courteous. By your continuing courtesy and kindness, you are educating that person.'

Friday, January 11, 2008

Six years of Guantánamo Bay

Today Amnesty International UK organized another by now annual protest against the Guantánamo Bay prison and detention facility run by the U.S. government. It's been six years since the first prisoners were taken there, and according to Wikipedia, "775 detainees have been brought to Guantanamo, approximately 420 of which have been released. As of August 9, 2007, approximately 355 detainees remain." Amnesty International says it "was one of the first to call for the closure of the Guantánamo detention facility. New voices have taken up the demand each year as more and more people have come to recognize the unlawfulness of the detentions."

Amnesty International protest
Amnesty International protest

The protest today was in two parts. Overnight, in the small hours of the night, activists braved the rain to spend an hour each caged up. At 10:30am the main event got underway. Hundreds of participants dressed in orange overalls and goggles lined up as if they were prisoners. Imposing men dressed in army uniforms barked out orders. Given the way they talked and moved about, they seemed like real soldiers. A couple of them had dogs. It was easy to imagine it being not so different for it to be all too real.

Close Guantánamo
Close Guantánamo

As is the case with many protests run by professional activist organizations like Amnesty International, the main audience for the protest was not bystanders in the street or the officials in the US Embassy -- it was the media. Photographers and television crews were in abundance. There were television crews representing channels in the Middle East and Pakistan, as well as media companies like Reuters. The event was staged to be friendly to media deadlines (and therefore distinctly unfriendly to people doing a regular 9am - 5pm job). Clusters of photographers gathered round a scene when something "happened", such as when a prisoner was ordered to lie face down on the ground.


I felt a curious affinity with the television crews. I can't say why, but I enjoying watching them film their newsclips after the protest had finished. Considering I rarely watch the news on TV it was a bit strange. It might be because from my own experience on working with audio slideshows I know it's not easy to say something into a microphone, all the while keeping the content coherent and the voice interesting. Doing so in front of a camera would make it doubly difficult.

Television journalist
Television journalist

Monday, January 07, 2008

Security, London style

As I stood waiting for a train at Tolworth Railway station, thirty minutes from London's city centre, I was stopped by the London metropolitan police on anti-terrorism grounds. The police officer explained to me that he didn't think that I was a terrorist, but his presence was designed to reassure the public that the police were keeping a close eye on things. He asked me some questions and filled out a form. He wanted to know my name, age and where I was staying. To describe me, he wrote that I was wearing a brown hat, green jumper, blue jeans, and black shoes. That was greatly reassuring, as if I showed up the next day wearing a brown jersey instead of a green one, everything would be thrown into complete confusion. I could not remember the address of where I was staying, but that did not bother him. He simply wrote "declined" on the form. How all this is supposed to keep the nation safe from terrorism is unclear.

If only the British Library was as relaxed about the addresses as the police doing their anti-terrorism work with the general public. To read a book in one of their reading rooms, one must register with the library authorities. They require original documentation of home address, which must be less than three months old. If you cannot provide this documentation, you simply cannot view the books -- no exceptions made. Too bad if you are homeless, or like me because of circumstances cannot provide the documentation they want.