Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Terminology Problem

Yesterday I wrote about the Israeli attack on a flotilla delivering humanitarian aid to Gaza as a consequence of irreconcilability. Today's reactions to this incident demonstrate, among other things, both how wide that irreconcilability is and the extent to which it is continuing to grow. It is unclear what will reverse this "growth derivative;" but, at the very least, all involved parties need to figure out how to get to a place where bilateral understanding is one of the goals. In simplistic terms, this amounts to agreeing that the results of exchanging points of view will be preferable to that of exchanging either bullets or blows with clubs.

Understanding is not an easy goal to achieve, which is one reason why Jürgen Habermas has invested so many pages in discussing it, particularly in his massive Theory of Communicative Action. Fortunately, one of his most important points comes early on in the first of the two volumes of this treatise. That point is that negotiation must be grounded on "common definitions of the situation," meaning that those in negotiation need to accept a foundation of shared concepts and vocabulary for those concepts.

To see how difficult it can be to satisfy this precondition, we need look no further than Roane Carey's post this morning to The Notion, the shared blog site managed by The Nation. Indeed, the point is made within the first two paragraphs:

An ancient proverb holds that the gods first drive mad those whom they wish to destroy. What madness could have driven the Israeli government to order its navy to attack, in international waters, a flotilla of ships full of human rights activists, MPs from governments around the world, a Nobel Prize winner and two former US diplomats?

What was there to gain, in either strategic or PR terms, from killing civilians—as of this writing, at least nine and as many as twenty are dead, along with several dozen injured—who were delivering desperately needed humanitarian aid for the 1.5 million people of Gaza imprisoned behind an Israeli blockade? As Glenn Greenwald put it, “If Israel’s goal were to provoke as much disgust and contempt for it as possible, it’s hard to imagine how it could be doing a better job.”

Now, while I personally tend to agree with Greenwald's point, I think it is worth observing that Carey is not helping matters with his choice of terminology. The Israeli position, like it or not, is that yesterday's action was a defensive maneuver, planned to prevent penetration of the blockade. As plans go, it was a pretty bad one; and I would be surprised if a lot of heads in the Israel Defense Forces are not being knocked as I write this. However, those concerned with the plight of Gaza because of that blockade should recognize that the very use of a word like "attack" (not to mention intimations of madness) may galvanize world opinion but will probably also inhibit any serious negotiation. The one American who appreciates this proposition seems to be Barack Obama; and, in a related assault on terminology, his official response was deemed "tepid" by another Nation blogger, John Nichols. If tepidity is a matter of moderating the temperature, then, however much both media producers and consumers tend to prefer high drama, we are not going to find a way out of this mess until all parties find a way to lower the level of entropic noise. Can we all save our rants for the Gulf of Mexico and figure out what it will take to get serious diplomacy back in gear in the Middle East?

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