February 24, 2013

SMILOWITZ: Using Our Words Wisely

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Language is a tremendously powerful tool. It is what distinguishes us from all other animals. In Thomas Hobbes’ classic work Leviathan, language is defined as a tool that men use to “register their Thoughts; recall them when they are past; and also declare them one to another for mutual utility and conversation; without which, there had been amongst men, neither Common-wealth, nor Society, nor Contract, nor Peace …” Thus, language is the foundation that glues civilization together; it is used in order to transfer our thoughts and knowledge into words, so that we can maintain peace, happiness and humanity itself. Furthermore, according to Hobbes, truth and falsehood are “attributes of Speech, not of Things,” meaning truth lies in our words, not our actions. As a result, whatever we write or say to one another (and ultimately teach one another) has a profound and potentially dangerous effect on our society. One wrong word can change the course of anything and everything; one wrong word can literally rewrite and recreate the truth.

With this in mind, two weeks ago The Economist published an article about how Israeli and Palestinian textbooks delegitimize each other and plant negative stereotypes into schoolchildren’s minds. According to the report, one Israeli textbook “depicts Arabs as ‘bloodthirsty’ and ‘a nest of murderers,’” while “84 percent of the references to Israelis are negative” in Palestinian textbooks. In addition, in both Palestinian and Israeli state schools the textbooks that are being used “promote ‘martyrdom-sacrifice through death.’” Thus, both Palestinian and Israeli schools seem to be teaching their students to “hate each other,” a tactic that ultimately adds more fuel to the fire of a contentious and immediate conflict. This instance of delegitimatization perfectly shows us of how important words and language are in governing the “truth.” These textbooks are used as a means of teaching the youth about the world they live in; they are a mechanism in which we impart and share our words, effectively sowing them into these children’s impressionable minds. When textbooks have negative references towards Israelis or portray Arabs as “bloodthirsty,” these words ultimately instill some sort of truth, regardless of whether or not these words are reflected in the Israelis’ or Arabs’ actions. Because it is written in books, those children that read these words will eventually come to believe what they are reading. This is the power that language and words have; it is the driving force that governs our thoughts and beliefs, constantly recreating and reconstructing the universe we live in.

However, remember to put all of this in perspective; it’s easy to place this particular instance into a box and categorize it as a phenomenon that occurs specifically within this region or as a result of this particular conflict. Rather, this type of delegitimization or manipulation of words as a means to an end has occurred throughout history and continues to occur all over the world, even within the United States — even within our University. Think about it: in class, oftentimes professors, textbooks, and students refer to the region that encompasses Western Asia as “The Middle East.” This term is actually a Western construct and is extremely Eurocentric. It was created to define the effects of decolonization after World War I and the subsequent emergence of new states, most of which were created and shaped largely by Western and European influences. Thus, when we use this term in class and read it in our textbooks, we continue to propagate this Eurocentric idea and continue to learn, view and teach through a narrower lens. Ultimately, these words “Middle East” are truthful in our minds — at least for those that use the term. It is imbued into our minds and is a part of the world that we create for ourselves. Regardless of whether or not one believes that the issue of the Israeli and Palestinian textbooks is more alarming than the question of how we define “The Middle East,” they both ultimately have the same effect on our society: they create words that are imbedded into our minds, redefining and recreating the truth.

So, how do we approach this issue of delegitimization of countries or entire regions through our language? Do we try and change the textbooks, or should we change the curriculum all together? Will this ultimately solve anything? Probably not. Rather, we should learn to understand the power language and words have on our society, and take everything we hear, read and learn with a grain of salt. Going forward, we should learn how to think critically of our surroundings, analyze the world we live in and realize that truth lies in our words, so they should be used wisely.

Ariel Smilowitz is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at asmilowitz@cornell.edu. Why You Should Care appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Ariel Smilowitz