Language is a weapon, and where we pay attention is as well. At least that's what we're trained to believe, when trying to respond humanely to horrific news.
There is something intrinsically futile about trying to use words to discuss the weaponization of language in wartime. But since this is an important topic all the same, let us begin with a set of feelings: disappointment, betrayal, and alarm.
In the last few weeks, there has been strong reason to experience all three when following the constant war news surrounding Israel and Gaza, along with related discussion about the broader issue of Israel, Palestine, and the region’s future. From the outset of this latest episode in a decades-old conflict, people have said disappointing and alarming things that betray our sense of common humanity, and our common interest in protecting civilians from harm.
People in public office have advocated for the mass punishment of civilians, the eradication of their homes, the elimination of whole groups of human beings. Israeli leaders has done this, Hamas has done this, and the Palestinian Authority has done this. No “side” is innocent of calling for the eradication of whole peoples and lands in the heat and trauma of current violence. No “side” is innocent, furthermore, of sometimes arguing that the people they want to eradicate don’t really exist, never existed, or maybe only came up with their identities in recent decades.
Online, as one can imagine, the rhetoric is even worse and more persistent. Visual memes first shared in smaller forums, where people whip up fury with others in private, have a way of breaking out and spreading quickly across the rest of social media. Anger and shock fuels the ad-revenue algorithms so much better and faster than cute animal videos and silly food challenges ever could.
But it’s even more heartbreaking when it comes from people close to us. Family, friends, colleagues, and people in one’s social circles: human beings we’ve laughed with, confided in, supported through tough times. It’s a whole other level of grief to hear them work themselves now into the conviction, say, that there aren’t enough good people in any of these proverbial Sodoms and Gomorrahs to spare the whole region from deserving to be wiped off the face of the planet. “Peace at last”.
Perhaps some of us have felt this betrayal before. Perhaps we remember it from after 9/11, or during the rise of a recent US politician. Perhaps we remember how readily xenophobic, racist, sexist, antisemitic, homophobic, and transphobic rhetoric poured out from empowered extremists in the wake of such events.
Perhaps we are no strangers to having to put up greater walls, for our own safety and sanity, against people who were once dear and close parts of our lives, yet who now seem unable to do much except talk out of hate and its foundation, fear.
Then there’s the weaponization of empathy: the way one person articulating care for those suffering is immediately criticized for it. If someone posts concern or alarm for one group of civilians, the what-about-ers stand ready: Where were you for X other civilians? How dare you express your horror at this situation when “everyone knows” that “nobody said anything” about Y. You’re just a patsy for mainstream media if you buy into the suffering of Z. Don’t you know that there aren’t really any civilians here? That they’re all trained up in their culture’s dogma? That it’s better, perhaps, to cut them down before they grow up to do violence, too?
If history teaches us anything, it’s that after the initial hysteria of active war and its myriad of secondary traumas, people will en masse look back at these dehumanizing actions with great sorrow and regret. We’ll see the final death counts, review contemporaneous testimony, shake our heads at all the rumors debunked too late not to cause more harm, and think to ourselves, “Goodness, we really lost our heads there, didn’t we? Maybe we didn’t need to say that they should be wiped out completely. Maybe we didn’t need to say that they’re all fanatic racists, or terrorists ready to dance on other graves. Maybe we contributed to an acceleration of violence because we just wanted the whole thing over and done with, once and for all.”
But either way, history also teaches us that, in this current moment, talking about civilian lives will always be an affront and a distraction to many. If you discuss or share a video of a grieving family member, congratulations: you’re spreading propaganda. If you try to talk about recent history of the region using data from before the latest outbreak of violence, congratulations: you’ve bought into the international community’s systemic campaign of disinformation.
Sometimes this rhetoric emerges from a concerted campaign to shut down opposition, but more often than not we don’t need a conspiracy theory. It’s human nature. People generally don’t like to feel complicit in causing undue harm, so even if harm is “inevitable” in war (a dangerous concept), they would rather not hear about the harm caused by their “side” at all. Not while they’re trying to guarantee their side’s survival. Not while they’re rooting for their side to win.
That’s why some will shut you down for so much as mentioning civilians, or grieving them, let alone speaking for them. That’s why some will go to great lengths to insist that there aren’t really civilians involved at all. Even though Israel’s supposed to be a democracy, and Palestine is supposed to be awful because it’s not a democracy, in the fog of war civilians from both communities will be treated as hiveminds uniformly represented by their leadership, whenever doing so best suits the argument of those whose anger is concentrated on the work of active war.
The people whose anger (and fear) has led them to advocate for a swift and decisive military solution to a complex human problem will never not see humanitarianism as a weapon. Because, in a way, it is. Compassion makes one hesitate before pulling the trigger. Concerns about humanitarian fallout cause political entities to deliberate before sending more military aid. Empathy gets in the way.
There is also a kernel of truth to the notion, flung often by those angry in the middle of an active conflict, that outsiders “only care” about this situation because a media blitz is drawing our attention to certain violence over others. Yes, that’s true: but not as uniformly as some cynics would have you believe.
When the US withdrew from Afghanistan in 2021, the world absolutely shared its horror at the sight of civilians abandoned to the Taliban. We agonized over the plight of women and girls, queer folk and religious minorities. We ached for every civilian who helped the US and would surely pay the price for that aid now.
Was this enough to improve our ability to talk with any greater nuance about the situation? To “fix” it? To address all the differently displaced Afghan religious minorities, like the Shi’ite Hazara community trapped in legal limbo in Indonesia for upwards of a decade? No, but while some in the West worried about Afghan civilians “becoming America’s problem”, others disseminated horror stories of civilians donating organs and selling off daughters so whole families wouldn’t starve in brutal economic conditions. Efforts were made to push the international community to act, and they will be again when it comes to winter donations, especially as this year aid has been cut to the World Food Programme.
Similarly, few seemed to know what to say or do when I wrote about the horrific civil war in Ethiopia and Tigray in recent years, which involved a heinous number of sex-based war crimes visited upon the women and girls while men and boys were forcibly enlisted or slaughtered. Certainly no one came into the comments to demand that I “take a side” with respect to the competing national identities fortifying their cultural distinctiveness through conflict. It was enough then to grieve atrocity.
But in part, too, less attention was paid to Tigray because people were focused on the pandemic, and then on the horror inflicted on civilians in Ukraine, and the sharply racialized outcomes for other global immigrants that this conflict was exacerbating. The unjust treatment of Central and South American civilians at the US border, and the different standards for immigrants in flight from Africa to the EU, were absolutely hashed out in the wake of those first few, fraught months of war with Russia.
And there were many also expressing outrage for the plight of the Uyghur population in China, and concern for the Taiwanese trapped between China and the US in a bitter dispute complete with military exercises. The Rohingya genocide in Myanmar was also still in the news, in part because we knew our social media outlets had a significant role to play in the escalation of ethnic cleansing.
In Canada, too, Syria’s horrific civil war provided many North American communities with the bittersweet gift of new arrivals: talented human beings rebuilding their shattered lives in a country that still generally celebrates its immigrant heritage (albeit not without its own share of xenophobes and racists). Plenty of Canadians have been acutely aware of and following the horrors in Syria if only to better support neighbors with whom their children share schools.
But Canadian concern for regional conflict goes deeper than that, too; when the current prime minister was first elected, many hoped he would stop Canada’s complicity in arms sales to Saudi Arabia, when the country was using those munitions in violence against the civilians in Yemen. Many were deeply disappointed when Justin Trudeau affirmed the importance of not breaking contracts with economic partners instead. Many are still trying to get Canada to stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia: a practice only briefly paused after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
Suffice it to say, then, even if average people don’t “show up” for every conflict, and don’t know how to “solve” every act of ethnoreligious violence in the world, our capacity for empathy whenever informed about a new crisis, however inconsistent that may be, is not a mark against us.
But in the midst of a brutal conflict where Palestinians are bearing the brunt of a humanitarian nightmare, along with the vast majority of civilian deaths after Hamas slaughtered Israeli civilians on October 7, average people are being told that any attention to civilian outcomes is a weapon.
That we are all in this war, all combatants from the sidelines, if we say anything. That what we say will be used to determine what “side” we are on, and that there are only two sides, no matter how much anyone might disagree.
Another lesson in empathy exists here, too, though:
Right now, it is important for many to believe that there are only two sides. Only two identities that matter. Only two possible outcomes for this whole conflict. All of Israel flattened to one vision of its future. All of Palestine flattened to one vision of its future. All Jewish people, Arab people, Muslim people, Palestinian Christian people, distilled to one absolutist scorecard:
Either they lose, or we’re dead.
For some it really is that simple, and has to be, because anything more nuanced would mean giving over to a level of complexity that makes taking decisive action impossible. And for many, taking such action right now is everything.
As for the rest of us? When the stakes are so high; when every word might only further inflame tensions; when extremists need you to believe that Jewish people can’t have differing opinions (ha!), that Israelis don’t have different ideas about the future, that Palestinians are all “for” the exact same vision of tomorrow…
It is often much easier to stay silent.
To allow oneself to be shamed into not saying that our hearts break for the civilians trapped in this nationalist, ethnoreligious nightmare of a conflict.
But you can bet that, if silent now, you’ll also be castigated when the next major humanitarian nightmare comes around. How dare you try to speak on that horrific situation, people driven to extremes will say then, when you didn’t express enough sorrow and alarm over this one?
And in a way, they’ll be right. When it comes to the audacity of only having enough attention span for a finite number of conflicts at any given time, when the world is so full of cruelty on so many cultural levels, on this accord they will always be right.
But we don’t speak up, and out, in defence of human life because it is easy.
Or because we are impeccable exemplars ourselves.
And it is absolutely not an act of fence-sitting to take a “side” that many want to believe doesn’t even exist.
Yes, in war many are always going to believe that the world must be seen in flattened, gamified binaries. To many, in the biochemical heat of imminent threat and trauma, this level of dehumanizing decisiveness will seem the only way to “win”.
To the rest of us, though, war is always loss.
There will be no winners here, and we entertain no illusions to the contrary.
There are only those who survive, and whatever survives with them.
What will survive in us, this time?