Mighty Red Pen

May 14, 2008

I say, you say, we all say

Filed under: Wordsworthy — mighty red pen @ 5:52 pm
Tags: , , ,

Did the recent cyclone hit Myanmar or Burma? Is what’s happening in Darfur to be considered genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes?

It depends on who you talk to. In a recent interview, scholar Saree Makdisi, author of Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation, discusses his views on the issue of language and conflict.

Q. And you insist that language is central in this?

A. Think of the way language is used to describe this conflict. For example, technically, legally, and morally, there’s a distinction between “colony” and “settlement.” You settle your own territory, you colonize somebody else’s. What the Israelis are doing in the occupied territories is colonizing. So why is an activity that the dictionary defines as colonization portrayed as settlement? Yet even I use the term “settlement” in this book.

Q. Because you don’t want to confuse the reader?

A. And be marked as an extremist. What does it mean when someone who uses language accurately can be dismissed as an extremist?

Read the entire interview with Makdisi.

1 Comment »

  1. These questions that sometimes get dismissed as being “mere” language usage issues actually have profound effects on the way people understand the world. To call the ongoing genocide in Darfur, for example, “war crimes” makes the conflict there seem as if it is a formally declared war between two powers. It isn’t. It is more a case of gangs of thugs, aided, funded, and abetted by the government, have been released to create havoc against largely helpless populations. The word genocide simply carries a greater opprobrium than any similar term. “Crimes against humanity,” despite the ringing tone of the rhetoric, is a technical, legal term.

    The comment by Mr. Makdisi concerning colony vs. settlement reminds me that when I looked up communism in my high school dictionary, it said something like “a totalitarian and largely discredited political system in which a single party organizes the economic and political life of a nation.” You couldn’t achieve a less objective definition without using the word ‘evil’.

    Comment by David — May 16, 2008 @ 11:07 am | Reply


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