For now, let us put to one side who is right and who is wrong and even ignore the question of what actually happened.
What’s in a name?
Our language is flexible, adaptable, a source of delight for many – but it is also the case that the subtlest choice of words can imply ideas in ways we may not notice. Recent press reports about the Israeli intervention into the Syrian conflict provide many examples.
For now, let us put to one side who is right and who is wrong and even ignore the question of what actually happened in order to focus on the choices of words and the hidden assumptions they contain.
Risks widening the war
A common observation during the previous week was that the attacks by Israel “risked widening the war” or risked the conflict “spilling over” into neighboring countries. In one sense that is obvious enough: The missile strikes were a new development that overtly brought another country into the fighting.
But, buried in that phrase is the assumption or the implication that the rest of the Middle East isn’t in conflict, that there is peace outside of Syria and that this could put it at risk. It is true that there are no active full-scale wars going on, but the occupation of Palestine, or even the turmoil in Iraq, Egypt and Libya is hardly peace.
There is also the assumption that Syria is somehow an isolated entity, like a sports playing field with distinct boundaries. So if the civil war “widens” and might “spill over” into neighboring countries, the implication is that this is somehow slightly unfair.
Such writing then implicitly assumes it is acceptable for Israel to be concerned about missiles in Lebanon that might go to Hezbollah and to call foul if Iranian influence is detected on a conflict in Syria. When writing about U.S. weapons going to Israel, different language with different assumptions tends to be used. Just imagine how a report would be written if Hezbollah, concerned about weapons going to Israel, would bomb a U.S. ship.
Of course, one can certainly make an argument that those cases are different. However, that is not the same as just assuming the cases are different.
“The next war they expect to face”
A columnist for Los Angeles Times, Edmund Sanders wrote on May 6 that Israel’s real concern was less Syria than “the next war they expect to face” against Hezbollah in Lebanon. And, that may be an accurate assessment of motives. But the phrase leads people to think that Israel is worried about being invaded by Hezbollah, when, in fact, the only chance of a full-on war breaking out would be if Israel launched a military invasion of Lebanon, as it did in 1982, 1993, 1996 and 2006.
A person is entitled to argue that Israel needs to invade, but it is not as if they are at risk of Hezbollah launching tanks and thousands of troops at Israel. Israel can choose when the next war with Hezbollah breaks out.
Who is a militant?
There is a plethora of names to describe people who undertake resistance to governments: guerrillas, militants, insurrectionists, freedom fighters, revolutionaries, rebels and insurgents, to say nothing of terms like criminals and bandits.
If a “rebellion” becomes widespread, at some point people decide it is a “civil war,” a point reached in Syria some time ago.
Likewise, governments can become a “regime” (a somewhat negative term), or if hereditary, a “dynasty.” If they came to power via a previous rebellion, they may be doomed to be a “junta” led by a “strongman.”
The point is some words assume legitimacy, some deny it. We’d assume we should support “freedom fighters” but oppose “militants.” Those opposed to Assad are now generally considered to be fighting a “civil war” and not a “rebellion,” a sign the world is according them more legitimacy. But Assad is still “the government” even if he controls less than half the country.
Where are we standing?
What exactly is the difference between saying someone “went out” and that he “came out”? In the first case you are inside watching them leave, in the second, outside watching them arrive. That illustrates how our language embeds a subtle notion of “standpoint.” So, if someone writes (as was reported in the New York Times on May 6) that “Hezbollah … is one of Israel’s most dangerous foes” this is written from an Israeli standpoint, almost as if you are standing inside Israel looking outward.
Again, this isn’t to dispute the judgment being offered, but imagine the following sentence: “Israel, one of Hezbollah’s most dangerous foes.” That would sound very odd to our ears because we seldom are put mentally into Arab territory looking at Israel.
Journalists are supposed to be cautious about reporting stories they cannot personally verify. This leads to the use of the word “unconfirmed” to describe accusations made by one side in a contested situation. But whose word is unconfirmed, and whose is authoritative? There is a tendency to think that “official government spokespersons” can “confirm” things, but representatives of other groups attacking them can only issue “unconfirmed” reports.
Think about stories of the missile attacks and stories of the use of chemical weapons in Syria or stories about Palestinian suffering. One should be cautious in a situation where there has been so much misinformation, but the record of misinformation hardly justifies thinking any one side has been consistently telling the truth.
Active versus passive voice of sources
Your high school English teacher likely attacked you for writing in the passive voice.
Language about wars often shifts between language that attributes violence to one side (“so and so attacked …”) and language that treats war as natural phenomena like a hurricane (“war-torn Lebanon” or “the crisis deepened”). Some violence is attributed to “retaliation” or “punishment” for previous violence by the other side; other writing makes violence sound as if it simply popped out of nothing, destroying a previously serene situation.
The cumulative impact of choices like this is to make casual readers think that one side only breaks the peace and the other side only retaliates when attacked – even if the actual number of attacks is essentially even.
There is a curiously passive quality to language that says “sources are saying” or “stories are circulating” or “there is speculation.” It obscures the source of who is doing the “saying” and sometimes that is intentional, because the source is a government official who is trying to influence the choice of language without coming out and forthrightly making an argument.
Words, words, words
Words often have hidden perspectives and our language choices contain assumptions. We can’t think clearly about our beliefs if we can’t bring to the surface these assumptions and we can’t challenge those who are manipulating us if we can’t detect the hidden ways it can be done.