Skip to Content

Richard Falk: The Semantics of Struggle

Words used against the grain.

https://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/14528646970_07d1bc4493_z.jpg
Image from Flickr user Oxfam International.

By Richard Falk
By arrangement with Richard Falk

While reporting to the UN on Israel’s violation of basic Palestinian rights, I became keenly aware of how official language is used to hide inconvenient truths. Language is a tool used by the powerful to keep unpleasant realities confined to shadow lands of incomprehension.

Determined to use the rather modest flashlight at my disposal to illuminate the realities of the Palestinian ordeal as best I could meant replacing words that obscure ugly realities with words that expose as awkward truths often as possible. My best opportunity to do this was in my annual reports to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and the General Assembly in New York. My courageous predecessor as Special Rapporteur, John Dugard, deserves credit for setting the stage, effectively challenging UN complacency with language that looked at the realities lurking below the oily euphemisms that diplomat seem so fond of.

Of course, I paid a price for such a posture as did Dugard before me. Your name is added to various black lists, and doors once open are quietly closed, if not slammed shut. If the words used touched enough raw nerves, you become a target of invective and epithets. In my case, my temporary visibility as UN Special Rapporteur meant being called “an anti-Semite,” even “a notorious anti-Semite,” and on occasion “a self-hating Jew.” Strong Zionist pressures are now seeking to induce legislative bodies in the United States to brand advocacy of BDS or harsh criticism of Israel as prohibited forms of “hate speech.” In April of this year pressures by the British Jewish Board of Deputies led the University of Southampton to cancel a major academic conference on the Israel/Palestine conflict.

In relation to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, the clarifying/some of the offending words are “apartheid,” “ethnic cleansing,” “settler colonialism,” “annexation,” “crimes against humanity,” and “genocide.” The UN evades such invasions of light by speaking of Israeli “occupation” (as if a static reality without history) and without challenging certain strong normative tendencies, including the criminalization of apartheid and ethnic cleansing, the delegitimation of colonialism, and the unlawfulness of annexation (as in Jerusalem by legal diktat and the West Bank by the de facto settlement phenomenon).

Right language encourages right action.

It was my experience that using words that connect the realities with the norms changes the discourse that is used by some of those at the UN and in the media, especially among those who seek genuinely to understand the significance of what is actually happening. Right language encourages right action. What is right language follows from how convincingly the word links to the reality being pointed to, and whether ideological obstacles can be overcome. The weakness of Israel’s position from the perspective of controversy is being expressed by their avoidance of substantive debate–for instance, challenging the labeling of occupation as apartheid–and recourse instead to character assassination of those who dared to connect these dots.

I feel that Israel is losing this struggle to obscure the true nature of their activities, and its devastating effects on Palestinian lives and rights. Whether this will mean that Israel will alter its policies is far less clear, and certainly not assured, and the outcome of the 2015 Israeli elections and formation of the new coalition government would suggest that the most extremist Israeli government ever has been installed under the leadership of Netanyahu and the Likud Party.

Nothing should be more shocking to Western liberal sensibilities than the appointment of Ayelet Shaked of the Jewish Home Party as the Minister of Justice in Netanyahu’s newly formed coalition government. Ms. Shaked, while being a member of the Knesset, became globally notorious as a result of her post sent around during the Israeli attack on Gaza in the summer of 2014 in which she called the entire Palestinian population the “enemy” that “should be destroyed.” Leaving no room doubt she went on to say that even that even “its elderly and its women” should not be spared, and that the killing of Palestinian mothers is justified because they give birth “to little snakes.”

Ali Abunimah asks rhetorically, “If Shaked’s post does not meet the legal definition of genocide then nothing does.” What is as shocking as these sentiments of Shaked is the silence of the Western media and leaders in the face of such an appointment in the only democracy in the region. Imagine the self-righteous angry posturing from liberals in the West if Hamas dared to select such a personality from their ranks to serve as the Minister of Justice. As it is the Hamas Covenant is invoked to confirm genocidal sentiments although subsequent behavior and political initiatives have moved in a far more accommodating direction.

What is at stake is the discriminatory manner of either noticing or not noticing the elevation of adherents of “genocide” to the pinnacles of state power. This two-way approach to language is fully displayed in the political discourse surrounding the Israel/Palestine conflict. And closer to home, compare Ayelet’s selection as Minister of Justice after her offensive tweet with the University of Illinois’ breach of Steven Salaita’s contract to become a tenured professor in reaction to his tweets expressing his outrage about Israel’s fifty-one day criminal assault on Gaza last summer. It conveys a lively sense of the extremity to which double standards are carried when it comes to Israeli behavior.

There is another set of intense struggles around language that arise when a single word is insisted upon because of its emotive value, and possibly its legal ramifications. I am referring to the unconditional insistence of the Armenian diaspora that the catastrophic events that climaxed in the 1915 massacre of as many as 1.5 million Armenians should be acknowledged as “genocide” by Turkey in the form of an official apology by the government and its leaders. The Armenian insistence stems from several motivations it seems. Above all, the fact that once “genocide” is admitted, then the link to ultimate evil is established beyond controversy, the Armenian narrative is validated beyond controversy, descendants of victims are granted a kind of closure, and what happened to the Armenians is implicitly equated with what later happened to the Jews as a result of Nazism. It is psychologically important to prevail with respect to how these events are described so as to alleviate the pain endured over the years by the Armenian people because of what they have experienced as ‘genocide denial’ on the part of Turkey.

Turkey’s response to the Armenian allegations has evolved over the years, but it remains somewhat edgy. The 2014 statement of Erdoğan seemed to accept the Armenian narrative to the extent of acknowledging the massacres and wrongdoings of 1915, while stopping well short of using the G-word. A few weeks ago, prior to the centenary of April 24, Pope Francis brought his moral authority to bear by describing in a solemn mass as “genocide” what happened to the Armenian people, and called upon Turkey to recognize these events for what they were. In reaction, Erdoğan and other Turkish leaders stepped back, declaring that the issue of what happened in 1915 has not yet been sufficiently resolved by historians to justify attaching the word “genocide” to this horrific set of events, that wrongdoing was not as one-sided as Armenians claim, and that the pope stepped out of line by issuing such an ill-informed and partisan statement concerning historical events that are complex and contested.

This semantic hard line shows how much meaning can be invested in whether or not a particular word is used.

Taking a different tack than that of Pope Francis, Barack Obama angered Armenians (even more than the pope angered Turks) by refusing to include the word “genocide” in his centenary message to the Armenian people, instead using the Armenian descriptive Meds Yegham (the great calamity). Obama added that the 1915 events constituted a “massacre,” produced “a terrible carnage,” and were “a dark chapter of history.” It seemed meant to be a strong statement of solidarity with the Armenian campaign, omitting only the word “genocide,” but this omission was all that was needed to turn this expression of solidarity with the Armenian call for redress of grievances into an anti-Armenian statement that was unwelcome because it refused to show its support for all that now mattered to the Armenians, namely, that their victimization be regarded as “genocide” beyond any doubt. For this goal to be reached, the endorsement by the US government is deemed to be necessary, and hence the Obama formulation fell decisively short. No denunciation of the 1915 events that did not adopt the descriptive label of genocide was acceptable for the aggrieved and mobilized Armenian diaspora. This semantic hard line shows how much meaning can be invested in whether or not a particular word is used.

In response to Obama, representatives of the organized Armenian diaspora expressed their disappointment in harsh language, going so far as to say it would have been better if Obama had said nothing at all. They called “disgraceful” his refusal to live up to a 2008 campaign pledge that if elected president he would identify the events of 1915 as genocide. Obama’s apparent justification for this semantic retreat is that as the head of state his primary obligation is to care for the strategic interests of the country, and Turkey as a NATO ally was too important to antagonize over such an issue. But my point here is to take account of the power of the word, as well as to notice that the language functions differently in private and public domains. To refer to 1915 as Meds Yegham is a strong affirmation of the Armenian narrative.

By comparison, if Obama were to describe the dispossession of the Palestinians in 1948 as the nakba, there would be dancing in the streets of Ramallah and Gaza City. Such a designation, if ever used by an American president, would be correctly viewed as a mighty slap in Israel’s face and a great symbolic victory for the Palestinians. The point here is that the Armenians have been able to raise the threshold of semantic redress to the very highest level by this insistence on genocide, and accompanying sentiment that nothing else will be acceptable, while the Palestinians have yet to receive even a formal acknowledgement that they were victims of a calamity in the less incendiary terminology of Arabic, much less that of genocide or ethnic cleansing.

What are we to make of this bitter fight about the words used to describe a series of events that happened 100 years ago? First, and most obviously, words matter, and are made to matter deeply by political actors, especially when the purpose is to challenge conventional wisdom. Some words achieve a charismatic stature, and none more than genocide. [As an aside, I was never more attacked by Zionist activists and the mainstream media than when in 2007 I referred in a newspaper article to Israel’s policies of punitive siege imposed on the entire civilian population of Gaza as “genocidal” (not “genocide”) in its intent and effect, a contention given governmental endorsement by Shaked’s appointment, but still manages to slip under the radar of Western moral and political sensibilities.]

Secondly, the alleged Turkish reason for its objection to genocide is based on the factual contention that historical realities of 1915 remain contested, and can only be resolved by an international commission composed of historians enjoying unrestricted archival access. The Armenians summarily reject such an approach as proof of Turkish bad faith, insisting that there already exists an authoritative international consensus supportive of their claim of genocide due to the establishment of systematic, one-sided, deliberate massive slaughter designed to eliminate the Armenian presence in Turkey. Thirdly, the American position is aligned with the Armenians on the facts, but with the Turks on the appropriate language at governmental levels, which seems the weakest of all rationalizations for evading the charge of genocide. Fourthly, if the search is for a way to resolve the conflict, the Armenian tactic of invoking foreign governments and moral authority figures such as the pope, is dysfunctional although it does provide strong moral support for the campaign. If, on the contrary, the mobilization of support is primarily intended to generate a heightened collective memory of victimization among Armenians, then soliciting these external expressions of solidarity from leading moral authority figures is of great value.

I find my own view trapped midway between the positions put forward by Pope Francis and President Erdoğan. On the facts, although as Turkey argues the events occurred in wartime with the Armenians acting as adversaries and sometimes engaged in violence against Turks, still the basic character of the events certainly seemed to be genocidal in character, with entire Armenian communities being forced to make death marches. As a lawyer, however, I would refrain from using the label genocide as there was no crime of genocide in 1915, and criminal law can never properly have a retroactive application. As I have pointed out before, even the London Agreement of 1945 setting up the Nuremberg Tribunal to assess Nazi crimes did not include “genocide” among the international crimes that could be charged even though the word genocide had been coined by Rafael Lemkin in 1944, or before.

Yet is it not appropriate in view of the consensus on the facts, to recognize the links to catastrophes that have been definitively called genocide by affixing the term to the onslaught against Armenians planned and executed by “the young Turks” acting under Ottoman authority? Surely no sane person objects to categorizing the Holocaust as “genocide” even though the death camps were established and the final solution occurred before the Genocide Convention of 1950, and was long underway before Raphael Lemkin had invented the word. Thinking along this line, and acknowledging that the crime of genocide had yet to be established, it would seem that it is politically, morally, and therapeutically correct to describe the 1915 tragic ordeal of the Armenian people as genocide, but legally irresponsible to do. In this gap between semantic contexts there seems room for a conflict resolving compromise. Yet the distinction drawn may seem obscure, and somewhat academic, unlikely in the end to be attractive for either side in the controversy.

How, then, can such an encounter over the word be resolved? It seems doubtful that Turkey will back down without some face saving ritual, and it is virtually certain that the Armenian diaspora having raised the temperature surrounding this single word to such a fever pitch will be content with anything less than a full fledged Turkish capitulation. The Armenian campaign will certainly continue to refuse to risk an ambiguous outcome arising from convening the sort of historical inquiry that Turkey proposes as the necessary next step in resolving the controversy. It doesn’t require much sophistication to conclude that the parties are stuck and likely to remain so for a long time.

Both sides need to look in the mirror sufficiently to realize that more is at stake then fidelity to their fixed position for and against the use of the word genocide.

This is a pity. Both sides would have much to gain by finding a way forward. It is quite likely that if the word issue was finessed, Turkey would be relieved, and go out of its way to preserve a vibrant memory of the events through such initiatives as a national museum, agreeing to a commemorative day, and hosting a variety of Armenian cultural events. If the Turkish leadership could persuade itself that the historical issue is substantially settled, and what matters is the present relationship, maybe then it could issue the kind of statement the Armenian people so fervently seek, and a mutually beneficial future could likely unfold. Both sides need to look in the mirror sufficiently to realize that more is at stake then fidelity to their fixed position for and against the use of the word genocide. Yet, the way in which psycho-political works, it is likely that the wait for such a sensible breakthrough to happen will be long. The burden of magnanimity is on the Turkish side, the stronger party and with less at stake concerning national identity.

Before concluding, I would mention another word that is obstructing reason and decency in the national and global political realm. It is “terrorism,” used to demonize the grievances and the tactics of the adversary, and in mainstream discourse preempted by governments and their media apologists to create an unbridgeable moral distance between themselves and a political challenge.

“We refuse to negotiate with terrorists” is the rationale for keeping a hot war going. We should also notice that the language of terrorism is racialized. If the incident involves a white American, there is a tacit turn toward focusing on his mental condition and sociopathic sensibility, but if the suspect is Islamic a frantic search is undertaken to link the acts of violence with either jihadist groups or to trace its source to the Koran.

There are efforts to offset equalize word play. For instance, critics of hegemonic semantics introduce the phrase “state terror,” to designate violence by state entities against their non-state enemies. This rejects the attempt by governments to immunize their own violence from censure, while branding the violence of their adversary as morally and legally prohibited because it is terror.

We know that the accusatory language of terrorism is in the toolkit of governmental policymaking, and can be dropped when convenient. When a political actor is ready to negotiate, adherents of the former enemy are no longer described as “terrorists.” Think how effortlessly the former leaders of the IRA, ANC, or even the PLO were seated at diplomatic dinner tables when the right moment arrived! Yet until the appointed hour, relying on the terminology of terrorism is the equivalent of a hunting license that can be used as a rationale for torture, disproportionate force, civilian casualties, extraordinary rendition, drone strikes, and special ops wherever, whenever without regard to constraints of law or morality.

Public reason in democratic society would greatly benefit from a renunciation of terrorism as a respectable term of art. Instead, the focus could be placed on what to do in effective and humane ways to sustain security and safeguard just political orders. In effect, to forego the temptation to call the enemy “a terrorist” the path would be clear to talk as well as fight, and to resist the absurd dichotomy that we are totally “good” and the adversary is totally “evil.”

But what if the insurgent challenge is demonizing the established order by contending that it is decadent, corrupt, and oppressive? Is it not reasonable if such a critique jumps the barriers of law, and mobilizes for violent struggle, to respond? Of course it is not only reasonable, but morally and politically imperative to respond as persuasively as possible, and to uphold the security of what is deemed legitimate societal arrangements. What is not helpful, actually diversionary, is to respond as if the struggle was between good and evil, and that is what happens as soon as the insurgent challenger is labeled “a terrorist.” Such language exempts the defenders of the status quo from self-criticism and considering accommodationist tactics, proscribing negotiation and assessment of grievances. The response to “terrorists” is war talk, rendering peace talk as irrelevant of worse.

Shall we also abandon the label of “state terror” for crimes of the state associated with violence directed toward the innocent? Yes, as part of a wider semantic contract to banish “terrorism” from the lexicon of political discourse. Yet, not unilaterally, as under existing conditions “state terror” at least creates some understanding that it is the manner of deploying violence that should be repudiated rather than the blackening of insurgent reputation. As terrorism is used on behalf of the state, even violence carefully directed at state structures and their human instrumentalities are called “terrorists.” In any event, state terror calls attention to policies and practices, and does not purport to demonize the state itself, leaving open possibilities of diplomacy and reconciliation.

At the very least, it would be a salutary move to call for a moratorium on the use of the word “terrorist” from this day forward. And as with the fierce ideological struggles over “genocide” it is best to know when to be provocative so as to expose suppressed realities and when to be pacifying so as to calm the atmosphere raising hopes for compromise and a shift of energies in the direction of nonviolent struggle.

Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for forty years. Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.

Readers like you make Guernica possible. Please show your support.

Tagged with:

You might also like

One comment for Richard Falk: The Semantics of Struggle

  1. Comment by Fred Skolnik on May 12, 2015 at 10:44 am

    Prof, Falk

    You are writing as if critics of yours who challenge your redefinition of commonly understood terms like apartheid are the ones who are guilty of trying to hide the truth when what they are in fact doing is challenging your corruption of language for polemical purposes. You are also pretending that you are “paying the price” because of your “inconvenient truths” and not because of the wild and irresponsible language you use to vilify Israel, which places you beyond the pale of reasonable discourse.

    The people who first used the term apartheid with reference to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank probably didn’t understand what the word meant, or didn’t understand the meaning of a military occupation, or thought that the inhabitants of the West Bank were citizens or residents of Israel, or were simply being malicious in their eagerness to vilify Israel. When they finally understood the absurdity of what they were saying, they simply changed their tune and began saying that Israel itself was internally an apartheid state or society. even though the haters know that none of the features of apartheid exist in Israel, where Arabs can vote and serve as Knesset members and judges, pursue any profession, treat Jewish patients as doctors and nurses, defend Jewish criminals as lawyers, attend universities and teach in them, share all public facilities and spaces with Jews and go wherever they want. The tactic of the haters is to extend the meaning of commonly used terms of opprobrium for the sole purpose of making them apply to Israel. This ploy too does not stand up to scrutiny so the haters are faced with a dilemma. Some of them, like you, thus go back to the original accusation despite its absurdity, because once they’ve gotten the word apartheid into the air they can’t really let go of it.

    An occupation by definition entails separation between the occupying power and the occupied population and the existence of two different legal systems for occupying and occupied nationals. All separation measures instituted by Israel are solely for purposes of security and it makes absolutely no difference if the Israeli presence in the West Bank is in the form of army bases (certainly legal under an occupation) or settlements (irrespective of their legality). If the Israeli occupation was a form of apartheid, then all occupations would be a form of apartheid, including the Allied occupation of Germany.

    As for Ayelet Shaked, what she said about Arabs is being said about Jews a hundred times a day by Arab leaders, educators and journalists, and that doesn’t seem to trouble you in the least

Leave a comment




Anti-Spam Quiz:

Subscribe without commenting