In this age of information, it's easy to forget the enormous power that words carry. I frequently find myself critiquing certain language used in news media: generalizations, analogies, categories. As a graduate of Columbia University's School of Journalism who worked for years in mainstream broadcast newsrooms, including that of CBS Evening News in New York City, I know that most reporters don't intentionally mislead the public. We're under deadline pressure. Necessarily we use shortcuts in terminology. But we must be aware that our words shape societal concepts and public opinion. The way we use words, consciously and unconsciously, creates realities and reinforces cultural norms.
What's in a Name?
Written and uttered, words may normalize ways of being or damn them. They verify what's tolerated and what's not. Being "gay" once meant you were an outlier. Today "gay marriage" is celebrated in headlines worldwide. Well into the 1980s, the people we now call "Palestinians" were known instead as "Arabs." Only after non-Arab leaders and members of the Western press began to acknowledge the existence of a distinct Palestinian population did the term "Palestinians" start showing up in news stories. It's not that the group didn't exist before; the Palestinian identity simply wasn't articulated outside particular geographies. Reporters, likewise, referred to a Sunni-Shiite split during the early days of the Iraq war instead of to Baathists and non-Baathists. Media now use "Muslim" rather than "Moslem," in keeping with the emerging custom that prefers terminology appropriate to self-identity or national identity. Where once news outlets wrote about Peking or Burma, they now dispense with these Western variants and use "Beijing" and "Myanmar" instead. Terms change with the times.
Weighing Our Words
Because words give rise to concepts, a responsibility comes along with how we use available words and how the ideas they beget become part of the received wisdom of the day. Received wisdom on questions of identity may harden into doctrine rather than remaining fluid, subject to scrutiny, and open to evolution. For example, the idea that it's unsafe for women and girls to leave their homes during times of war may become institutionalized into a prohibition.
These are the tools we have to work with. Using them intentionally rather than arbitrarily brings not only accuracy but also more clout to the communication. Intention, after all, is a tool.
A single word, or even a prefix, can make or break a whole story. Reviewing a documentary film script several years ago, I flagged an error, just hours before the narrator was slated to record the soundtrack. The footage showed thousands of Jews from around the world at the Western Wall, receiving a mass blessing. This kind of ritual was reinstated, the script said, after Israel "recaptured" the Old City in 1967.
"Recaptured"? When had Israel ever captured Jerusalem before? Not as a modern nation-state. Not as the oppressed Israelite minority under the Romans. The "re" disappeared. It was a single syllable, but it changed everything.
Equally problematic are the dualities that emerge when words are joined together. Particular pairings in mass media and political culture have troubled me for years: "Arabs and Jews," "Jews and Palestinians," "Israel and the Palestinians." The supposedly opposing categories are apples and oranges, I argue, incomparable facets of identity. One identity is hard, and the other is soft, in much the same way that power or skills may be hard or soft. Hard identity would include where you were born and your citizenship at birth, your biological sex, your first language, where your parents are from, and the color(s) of your skin. It's being born royal or rich or comfortable or impoverished — conditions you can't change. Soft identity, on the other hand, would include your education, gender, religion, profession, hobbies, naturalized citizenship and other tweaks you've made to your identity since birth.
In their article "A Sociological Approach to Self and Identity," Washington State University professors Jan E. Stets and Peter J. Burke describe the phenomenon this way:
"Humans have the ability to reflect back upon themselves, taking themselves as objects. They are able to regard and evaluate themselves, to take account of themselves and plan accordingly to bring about future states, to be self-aware or achieve consciousness with respect to their own existence."
We reflect on ourselves, and others on us, as a combination of our hard and soft identities. We may combine them in ourselves to become full human beings, but to compare soft identity in one group to hard identity in another creates an imbalance.
Let's take "Arab and Jew." To use "Arab" as a hard identity is problematic from the get-go, as I wrote in a column last May. As the late Los Angeles Times reporter David Lamb points out in The Arabs: Journeys Beyond the Mirage, "the most accepted definition of Arab today is one who speaks Arabic. None other seems to work. The real Arab comes from one of the 13 tribes of the Arabian Peninsula, but what of the millions who don't?" To use "Jew" as if it referred to a unified and fixed position is similarly problematic. There are Jews the world over, making up a group far broader than "Israelis." The two descriptors are certainly not interchangeable. Even Israelis, bound together by geography and theology, are not uniform in their beliefs or behaviors. Like "Arab," "Jewish" gives the false impression of a monolithic group.
Even comparing Palestinians and Jews puts hard and soft identities at odds. While some may argue for the validity of the comparison, I'd like to offer options to consider. In a Jan. 5 front-page article in The New York Times, we read, "As momentum ebbs for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both sides are taking another look at the one-state idea. But that solution has long been problematic for both sides."
There's a balance in the terms Israeli and Palestinian. The words do not describe state and government. Rather, they evoke culture, identity and opinion. The reader infers that two peoples are grappling with a troublesome reality. The article continues: "Palestinian supporters envision one state with equal rights for Palestinians and Jews. Palestinians would have proportionate political power and, given demographic trends, would before long be a majority, spelling the end of the Zionist project."
What's the relationship between Palestinians and Jews? Does the reporter mean that non-Jews and Jews are wrestling with what "equal rights" means? That Palestinians envision a single state in which Muslims, Christians and Jews enjoy equal rights? By substituting one word, the author has modified the assignment of group identity and belonging. Some readers might relate to a group called "Christians and Muslims" in ways they wouldn't relate to a group called "Palestinians."
Would using different words change anything? How might it affect the relationship among stakeholders and observers? Is it possible that differentiating between hard and soft identities could spark a shift in public opinion over time?
Or does "Palestinians and Jews" mean the same thing to the reporter as "Palestinians and Israelis"? Was the writer simply reluctant to repeat the phrase he'd used in an earlier paragraph? Perhaps. But the context of the paragraph in question is political, not personal; it's about state, governance and power, not a comment on diverse cultures and communities. It's therefore appropriate to use not "Palestinians and Jews," but another common (if flawed) configuration, "Israel and the Palestinians." This phrasing affirms the facts on the ground — that Israel is a nation and Palestine is not. But in the process, it diminishes Palestinians. As a people, they don't have the same standing that the nation of Israel has. If they were to come to the table, they would not come as equal partners.
More Than the Sum of Their Parts
"Language can create visceral emotional experiences," asserts neuroscientist George Lakoff, "which is why people read novels or go to movies or watch TV shows." I urge writers and readers to keep this in mind and to engage words on purpose, not simply because they may be in common usage. Who do you mean when you say or write "Arab and Jew" or "Jew and Palestinian"? Do you refer to Israel and the Palestinians, Israelis and Palestinians, or Israel and Palestine? Nowadays reporters have largely switched from using "Muslim" to "Rohingya" when they write about ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. The government of mostly Muslim Bangladesh treats displaced members of this mostly Muslim ethnic minority as foreigners and houses them in refugee camps. National distinction trumps religious connection. Hard identity trumps soft.
With repetition, the words we use can perpetuate notions that may have outlived their usefulness, while preventing fresh outcomes. Deploying the nuances of hard and soft identity to describe the circumstances and challenges with which people live may in the long run help us better understand one another in our ever-shrinking and always changing world.