Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Words, Words, Words

Some scientists theorize that one factor in the evolutionary growth of the size of the brain of early hominids was a result of their use of words. They believe that because of the use of words the hominid brain size and capacity grew and in turn enabled some hominids to develop “better” abilities to adapt and make use of varying environments. This in turn allowed for better nutrition and health, longer life spans, more offspring and the ability to live in more varied environments.

Our ability to use words gives us wonderful opportunities. Unfortunately, we have recently seen ways that the use of words has exacerbated and continued ongoing conflicts. Here in the US the Republicans call it “deficit spending” which must be reduced and cut, while the Democrats and President Obama call it “investment” or “stimulus” which should be promoted. And of course, it is both; the “investments” do require taxation to fund them and there is an underlying question: are increased taxes "worth it" and do the “investments” by government lead to the creation of jobs and ongoing stimulus other than the government jobs and the immediate spending spiral – or is real job growth dependent upon the private sector and the way to do that is through tax reduction? But instead of facing this directly and speaking to each other in a way that will clarify these issues, maybe find expedient means  and serve the public interest and needs, the politicians and pundits fence over the words - do we say “investment” or do we say “tax increases" and "deficit spending?” And we fool our self even more if we allow anger and self-righteousness to cloud our life and determine our actions.

The recent release of the so-called “Palestine Papers” by El Jazeera shows more of this. The Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat is being lambasted by the Arab media and Islamist extremists for daring to use the word Yerushalaiyim (which is Hebrew for Jerusalem) in reported discussions rather than the word El Quds (which is the Arabic way of referring to the same city that I above call Jerusalem).  He is defending himself by denying that he said the word "Yerushalaiyim." The place does not change, the word is just a word, and yet it is seen as a betrayal of the Palestinian cause. And if just the use of the wrong word is a betrayal, can there be peace? Can there be a way to reconcile conflicting visions and claims to the same city by two peoples, conflicting histories of a whole region which seek to deny the history of the other? In fact, in Israeli society and the world media the use of the word “West Bank” or the words “Judea and Samaria” are not only code words and short hand to refer to the same land area but also telegraph, knowingly or not, a host of political attitudes – some of which make very clear the road blocs to peace. 

Do we use the words or do the words use us? The release by El Jazeera of the documents has led to all sorts of accusations about who is betraying whom because of what deals they are willing to make for peace. El Jazeera is being accused by many different sides of betrayal and allying with "enemies" - whoever that is. Of course, where there are conflicting narratives and perspectives, peace requires give and take by both sides. But if there is only one true word then anything else is a betrayal.

Unfortunately, many of us do not see this “killing me softly with your words,” to appropriate the song’s words. So, please put down "your" words and be attentive to all the wonderful words you can use, act skillfully and appropriately to let life's words sustain and serve, nurturing this mystery that the universe offers.

(c) 2011 Elihu Genmyo Smith