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Reflections from an editor: Words, divestment and community

This is not a column about divestment. It is not a column about Israel, or about Stanford Out of Occupied Palestine. This is, instead, a column about words. Since June 2014, when I was first hired as Managing Editor of Opinions, I have edited 266 opinions pieces, totaling more than 200,000 words. Most – if not all – of these words matter.

They matter because people outside of the University read them and listen to them. Take an issue unrelated to divestment, for example: the 1,981 words Justin Brown ’15 penned about his own experience with sexual assault. Thousands of people off campus were driven to the article by coverage on Business Insider and The Atlantic, not to mention coverage by the national It’s On US campaign. People don’t live and die over every word, but what is said here is of some consequence. The divestment strategy of Out of Occupied Palestine (and Coalition for Peace’s opposition) surely aspires to capture that national audience.

But, those words also matter here, on campus. The words we choose are as important as the message we send.

The inherent inaccuracy of words, however, places a serious constraint on how we communicate. James Madison, writing in Federalist No. 37 (an op-ed of sorts), puts it eloquently: “No language is so copious as to supply words and phrases for every complex idea, or so correct as not to include many equivocally denoting different ideas.” This phenomenon is exacerbated by translation, especially from Hebrew and Arabic, but also transmission and nuance.

Take the word “Palestine.” Not an Arabic word originally, it first referred to land roamed by the Philistines. Then it meant the Ottoman land south of Syria. Then it meant the British Mandate. Then it meant a portion of land partitioned by the United Nations. Then it referred to territories administered by Jordan and Egypt, and then Israel. Then it denoted a state declared independent in 1988 and then in 2012 was given some recognition in the U.N. Neither is the “Palestine” of yesteryear the “Palestine” of today, nor is the “Palestine” of today the “Palestine” of tomorrow.

One word – “Palestine” – is so central to the debate, yet so variable.

Which “Palestine” we refer to when we invoke the term isn’t necessarily a problem. Confusion over the definitions of terms like this example can be easily clarified. But when that inaccuracy is assumed to be ideological jargon, it becomes a problem – it becomes polarizing.

Ideological terms, chosen for their specificity, not only denote a place or event, but connote a perspective. When someone employs nakba (day of the catastrophe), they are coming to the debate from a different angle than someone who uses yom ha’atzmaut (independence day). Similarly, when someone refers to the West Bank barrier as an “apartheid wall,” you might think it is something different than the “security fence” mentioned elsewhere; it’s not.

Devolving discussion into ideological terms allows one side to paint the issue as black and white and the other to paint it as white and black.

That contrast is where inclusive discussion ends. Take the names of the organizations: Coalition for Peace and Out of Occupied Palestine. Although there are plenty of reasonable disagreements with Coalition for Peace, the name defines any disagreement as anti-peace – a position which silences those reasonable disagreements and thoughtful debate. In the same manner, “Out of Occupied Palestine” construes dissent as favoring the subjugation of a people. Though only marketing techniques, these names leave no room for debate: There is only good and evil, right and wrong.

Yet no issue, and especially not the case study here, conforms to that dichotomy, regardless of what the inevitable commenters below might say. Of all places, a university should be the one place where we recognize that.

You might scroll through my published columns and label me a hypocrite. Perhaps you are right; I am no (political) moderate. But the one thing that this job taught me is that in order to have productive discussion, we need to develop a common language. While we can keep our principled stances, we should drop our polarizing rhetoric.

Angling for a more impartial language will take work. Other than “settlements,” a term adopted by most (though not all) discussants, few such neutral terms currently exist. But the work seems entirely worthwhile. Not only will removing conversation stoppers promote actual discussion, it might also allow us to uncover similarities – similarities like a shared history of European oppression and a shared struggle for a place to call home, two items that Amos Oz identifies.

If we are to be leaders of anything, let it be leaders of educated discussion, on this, and on every issue facing our University and nation.

***

This was not a column about divestment. It was not a column about Israel, or about Stanford Out of Occupied Palestine. This was, instead, a column about words. Choose your words carefully, Stanford. They determine what you say and, more importantly, who will listen. Words Matter.

Contact Nick Ahamed at nahamed ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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