by Skylar Kogelschatz
As an American in my mid-20ís I have lived through many changes in the American vernacular. This is the reality of a living language that must change in order to effectively describe an ever changing world. For example, my mother who grew up watching Westerns on a black and white television now knows how to use the abbreviation LOL (Laugh Out Loud) in a text message.
In contrast, English language descriptions of war and conflict have more or less remained static with some of the more recent additions being Genocide, coined in 1944, and Apartheid, whose first known use was in 1947.
Is John Stewart anti-Semitic?
You can see the detrimental effects of the limited vocabulary surrounding war and conflict, in the Israel-Palestinian conflict where criticisms of Israeli military policy are often met with charges of anti-Semitism which no one, not even John Stewart can escape. But why is this? Is it because John Stewart (who is Jewish) is actually anti-Semitic? I highly doubt it. I believe it comes from a fundamental failing of the English language when it comes to war and conflict today. In particular there is no word to describe what is happening in Israel and Palestine. What is between co-existence and Apartheid, war and genocide? We as English speakers cannot discuss these types complex, multidimensional situations because we simply do not have the vocabulary to do so.
Emotionally loaded terms have a detrimental effect
When describing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the word war seems almost entirely inappropriate. This is due to the images that are so integrally associated with the word War. For me at least, the word war conjures up images of WWI and WWII where both sides mutually declared war, had full sovereignty over their own territories and people and most importantly, were for the most part equally matched. This clearly is not the case in Israel and Palestine or in many conflicts today. Furthermore, the phrase asymmetric war still implies active fighting on both sides, which while used by many to describe the recent events in Gaza, is inapplicable to the every day scenario that is the reality in Israel and Palestine. So that leaves us with the terms Apartheid and Genocide1, which have both been used by commentators to describe the Israeli Occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. However, these emotionally loaded terms have a detrimental effect on any form of productive debate in connection with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
We need a new vocabulary to encourage constructive criticism
The use of the words genocide, Apartheid, Nazism etc. causes people on both sides of the debate to shut down. More importantly this type of terminology causes productive criticism of governmental policy to be ignored and torn apart based solely on the use of one word, with the intent of the message left behind. That is why in this new age of inter-state conflict, asymmetric wars, wars on terror to some, and enduring conflicts, we as participants and commentators need a new vocabulary. We need a new vocabulary that allows productive conversations to be had while not watering down the pain and struggles of every day life in these conflicts.
While there are many issues in this decadesí long Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one that is often ignored or over exaggerated is the language used to discuss it. Language has the power to shut down productive conversations or spur new waves of creative thinking. Considering all of this power, maybe we should start to re-examine all of our own language around this conflict and consider how much more effective our conversations could be if they were not limited by outdated vocabulary.
1I will not be engaging in the argument of whether or not these terms in their full meaning apply to the Occupation .