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.'


Sana said...

I have a Persian proverb sitting on my desk that says something to the effect of: the tongue was made soft, without bones so that your speech may be just like it. Although it may seem like a rather lame way of affecting behavior change, glancing at that proverb a few hundred times a day has taught me to hold my tongue. I guess language has a similar effect - you don't realize how something seemingly innocuous could be so detrimental.

Unfortunately, Mr.Street seems to think that it is akin to hair-splitting. However, the defensiveness with which he shuts out your point of view (as is evident from a comment on his blog) as opposed to ignoring it, makes me think that something in his subconsciousness knows what he's done wrong.

Fari said...

We have become not only desensitised by images but language also. People who work in journalism resort to cliches to communicate. You did well to alert him, his loss that he is to thick skinned to notice anything subtle about language.

I would like to see that video, I had not idea that Billy Bragg sang about things like that. he recently ran a free event at the Southbank (a huge open jam for musicians) and I dismissed it in my mind as guitar strummers paradise...oh well! Next time.

You write very well by the way :)

maria paula said...

Your post reminded me of a very sad image I saw earlier this year.

Here's the link to the picture:

"Baghdad, Iraq: A four-year-old Iraqi child cries as older boys pretend to execute him on July 2 2007. One popular game features children pretending to be battling militia and police"

-maria paula