The Power of Words
Last week I became involved in a discussion of international events with an old friend of mine who lives in South Africa. He and I share a lot of values as well as experiences with several Internet e-mail groups. He has even visited me at my home, and we have shared our personal writings with each other. I value his opinions. Still, our recent exchange concerning the Iraqi war has brought up some unexpected and uncomfortable feelings.
He sent me a copy of an opinion piece from The Guardian, in the UK, by Arundhati Roy. Roy is from India, and has received numerous awards for her writing. The piece he sent me was vehemently anti-US, particularly regarding Iraq. It struck me as littered with cheap shots, half-truths and misleading generalities. The beginning of the piece dwelled on the suffering of ordinary Iraqi people and the ignorance of US soldiers regarding larger issues. To me, it was a diatribe that colored me and almost everyone I know with the sins of our current government. Only in the last eight paragraphs did Ms Roy draw a distinction between the American government and the American people.
In my reply, which expressed my feeling of defensiveness, I used the word "shrill" to describe the article as I read it. My friend disagreed strongly, and left me feeling even more defensive.
I am not a fan of our current government. I heard the news of the beginning of the war with great dismay, and have followed the course of events full of foreboding. I donít think this war is going to make our country safer from "terrorism" as President Bush has insisted, but rather, if anything, make us more vulnerable.
That said, I feel at a loss about how to continue a dialog with my African friend. My impulse is to crawl into my shell and simply not respond. Iím not sure why my feeling of being judged is so strong. Both he and I agree that the war and the recent attitude of our administration toward the rest of the world are not likely to solve our problems, and will certainly result in a lot of suffering of innocent people.
Part of the problem seems to be a difference in the importance of certain words that are becoming attached to the conflict. "Collateral damage," for example, is a military term for unintended damage, including civilian casualties. No doubt itís useful shorthand among officers and soldiers, whose focus necessarily must be on military objectives and missions. To those who identify with the innocent civilians caught in the war, itís an outrageous euphemism.
"Liberating Iraq" is another term emphasized by Washington but translated by many people overseas as "conquering a country." Those who have watched what we have done in a dozen countries in the recent past, such as setting up revolutionary conflicts to suit our political agendas, do not trust us to have the welfare of Iraqi citizens in mind as we engage in our "regime change."
Iíve heard these terms used, and pretty much dismissed them as part of the propaganda of warfare. They do not inflame me, but they do inflame others.
In this state of defensiveness and some confusion, I went to the Internet and searched for the name "Arundhati Roy." Immediately, her name came up in several contexts. A few years ago she wrote a novel about her native India, The God of Small Things, about two children who did not understand "the big things" that adults talked about. It was not, however, a childrenís book. Roy received a number of awards, and her book was hailed as full of insight. She has championed the causes of ordinary people and, as I quickly discovered, is a gifted and articulate writer. Even though I would not change my critique of the Guardian article sent to me by my friend, I am impressed with the depth of her writing in general. Iím impressed, but not comfortable. I suppose that is good.
I realize that I have been able to distance myself from the actions of my government by feeling morally superior, and that distance has given me comfort. Iíve not been politically active in thirty years, aside from voting regularly and writing occasional letters to my representatives in Congress. Especially since the war has actually begun, it has seemed that there is nothing I can do to change anything. The game will be played, and the consequences, whatever they are, will be felt. Some of my friends participate in demonstrations and rallys against the war. I applaud their fervor, but canít get up any enthusiasm for joining them.
One reason, perhaps, is that for the past few years I have been meditating, in the Vipassana tradition of clearing the attention and observing the workings of my mindówhich turns out to be rather wild and unruly. It involves letting go, as much as possible, of desire and aversion, of grasping and denying, of hoping and regretting. Becoming awake, as they say, to what is. Itís a step toward freedom, the freedom that really counts, which is the absence of attachment. Being attached to something, even to something as valuable as peace or justice, only clouds my seeing what is.
That is not to say that a fully enlightened person would want nothing to do with making the world a better place. Compassion is at the heart of being truly human. My friends who stand together in the dark and shield their candles from the wind donít think that President Bush will see them on The Nightly News and have a change of heart. They stand there because itís the only thing that they can do that will touch the grief in their hearts for the thousands of innocent people who are suffering simply because of where they happen to live. My friends standing vigil in the dark are connecting with that suffering, because thatís who they are. And thatís who they are becoming.
Arundhati Roy writes about the tragedy of people suffering, and she writes to connect with those people. She rails against the mindless machines that roll over people and the precision bombs that are not quite precise enough. She protests the decisions that are made in faraway offices to destroy homes as well as military installations just to be sure they get the bad guys. If her voice seems shrill perhaps itís because she shrieks against injustice that masquerades as justice. She writes because that is who she is.
The words we use do not affect only others. They affect us, because they give solidity to sometimes-vague feelings. Just in writing this essay, I have found myself using words that, in reading them over, I find mean much more than I intended. They are words I have read often in the context of this conflict, and so I used them as a kind of shorthand that I thought others would understand. Iíve had to go back and substitute or delete in order to avoid unintended inferences.
"Weapons of mass destruction" is a term much used by our government to indicate chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, as though a two-thousand-pound bomb is not a weapon of mass destruction. Tear gas is a chemical weapon, but thatís not what the Pentagon spokesperson is referring to. Because the words have been assigned specific meanings by those who originate them doesnít mean that the audienceóin the present case, the whole worldówill understand that specificity. Even if they do, if they want to distort the meaning for their own purposes they need only repeat them but neglect to mention the special ways the words were used. Even legitimate uses of words sometimes become code among particular groups.
My friend referred to the war against Iraq as "an illegal invasion." Washington avoids the word "invasion," even though it was exactly that. "Illegal" is another matter. In law, it has a very specific meaning, and itís difficult to relate our invasion of Iraq to any body of law except common lawówhich itself does not lend itself to much precision. But calling the war an illegal invasion is designed to arouse feelings, not describe the event in any legal context. My analytical critique is irrelevant to my friend. He may even think that I have not heard him. In truth, I guess I havenít, if I insist on my "legal" definition.
Ideally, communications transfer information from one person to another. Words have to have the same meaning to both parties in order for that transfer to be accurate. Even further, the environment in which the communication takes place must not impose distortions through emotional influences. Alas, the real world seldom provides these ideal conditions. In community building exercises, the environment is designed to be safe for participants to open up to each other, to reveal their deeper thoughts and feelings, and their common humanity. Without that safe environment, people tend to revert to "defensive behavior."
Psychologist Jack Gibb defined defensive behavior as "that behavior which occurs when an individual perceives threat or anticipates threat in the group." When someone expresses a judgment that another might feel on some level relates to her or him, communication tends to break down. People respond to each other according to what they think is meant, regardless of the intended meaning. And if they are defensive, even ordinary words take on darker meanings.
In the wild and uncontrolled environment of international relations, there is no such thing as safety in Jack Gibbís sense. So defensive behavior is rampant. How we ever really communicate with each other is a mystery. Whatís important is that we remember, when we hear or read what others have said, that "a dog" is not necessarily "a dog."
When my African friend sent the article to me, he had read it in a completely different context than when I read it. We both speak English, and in the past weíve been able to communicate with each other satisfactorily. Our topics of conversation have been limited in scope. Now here was a new situation for which we had not been prepared. Because of our history together, Iím confident that we will recover the trust and ease together that we used to have. Itís important to me, and Iím sure it is to him. What I have to do is keep that confidence in mind as I tread what feels like a mine field of dangerous words that lie between us.
The feeling of "them" versus "us" is an illusion. A powerful illusion, but nonetheless ultimately just a mirage. Itís up to me to stay aware of that.
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April 10, 2003