Words can illuminate. Words can also obscure. Words can hurt. Words can heal. They can soothe or inflame, ennoble, intimidate or exploit. Just words.
We know the awesome power of speech, but don’t always know what to do with it. Remember the era of battles over politically correct speech? As much as we revere freedom of speech, our laws acknowledge the danger of incitement and therefore punish hate speech.
Writers and reporters who wish to be credible sources of information rather than vehicles for propaganda struggle to work in a thicket of highly charged words. Nowhere is this more the case than in writing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The International Press Institute deserves credit for taking a step toward common, non-inflammatory word usage for reporters and writers. Last month they published “Use With Care: A Reporter’s Glossary of Loaded Language in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” A product of 6 anonymous Israeli and Palestinian media veterans, the publication notes terms that are offensive to one side or another, and suggests alternatives. For example, the glossary addresses the separation barrier built by Israel to deter terrorist attacks. When Palestinian propagandists refer to it as an “apartheid wall,” they take poetic license that has no reference to truth. Israeli’s prefer the term “security fence/wall”, since its origin and function is to protect Israeli security. The IPI recommends “separation barrier,” a neutral term. Hebrew, English and Arabic terms are provided.
I was glad to see the term “Middle East expert” rejected, as a reader is left helpless to discern whether the source is an ideologue or someone with another, unknown agenda. The guide recommends identifying the “expert” with his job, employer and basic outlook. What refreshing good sense!
It’s no surprise that some terms proved unresolvable, and in these cases the guide merely explains each side’s point of view without suggesting any alternative.
Nevertheless, in the cyclone of words, opinions and bombast that swirl around the Middle East, it is encouraging to see a genuine effort to facilitate mutual communication and – dare we even hope? – A small step toward mutual understanding.