Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Bad language on the Arab Street..

Whether writing on little blogs like this one, or participating in online or live discussions, It can be very difficult for Arabs and westerners to find common ground, even though in their hearts they might actually share the same opinions. I've found that this is due to slight differences in language used by both sides to describe concepts, which leads to one or the other becoming infuriated at the other's unfortunate turn of phrase. The use of inflammatory language might be intentional but also completely unintentional.

Perhaps this is due to one or both parties being victims of media propagandists, who as any student of journalism should know, have got the art of manipulating language down to a tee.

Here is an article by Ramzy Baroud which describes how terrible brutality can be washed down through the media by using certain terms and turns of phrase which actually conceal the reality of what happened.

But I am not writing about the ever-present propaganda in all mass-media, I am talking about how people who otherwise would agree about everything find themselves at supposedly opposite ends of an ideological spectrum. It all comes down to points of view and the willingness to appreciate the other person's perceptions.

A common reason I fall into arguments with westerners is Iraq. Westerners often appear to have an over-simplified view of what is going on, and an unfortunate tendency to assume cultural superiority to Arabs. They commonly react with anger and hostility when their worldview is challenged, resorting to baseless accusations to condemn the offender. This can make dialog with them nearly impossible. And I have found that the more honest I am in my opinions, the more hostile the reaction. To an extent this is understandable and can be rationalised.

Take for example my comments on resistance attacks in Iraq. I view the shooting down of American helicopters to be absolutely legitimate acts of resistance against foreign occupation. Although I don't rejoice in death, I believe that the more Americans killed and wounded in Iraq, the more likely that the American public resolve will be eroded and the US military forced to withdraw. So when a helicopter is shot down in Iraq and Americans die, my reaction is to applaud the success of the Iraqi resistance. While most readers would consider this completely logical, Americans find it hard to stomach and react with anger.

Anger is a strange emotion that causes people to say ridiculous things, abandon logical thought, and generally make asses of themselves. I've obviously never voiced support for Saddam Hussein, yet I've encountered Americans who accuse me of wishing for his return to Iraq. The situation in Iraq is obviously infinitely more complex than simply being for or against Saddam, and this opinion poll conducted in Iraq by Oxford University's department of sociology demonstrates this clearly. As anyone can see, resisting the American occupation has no connection to support for Saddam.

I've only scratched the surface here, but there are millions of issues such as this where Arabs find themselves accused of the most ridiculous things because they said something that doesn't agree with the western palate.

Needless to say, this psychology works both ways. I wonder sometimes if Americans have the merest conception of how hateful and despised their commonly-used media buzzwords and phrases are in Arab countries, words such as "collateral damage", "gunmen", "detainees", "daisy cutter", "islamists", and oh, lest I forget, "winning hearts and minds". So we Arabs often find ourselves provoked by some poisonous media report, and in our anger can end up saying things that come off as extremist and overtly hostile to the western reader. And so we have ourselves a vicious circle where people who probably want the same things end up hating each other because they weren't capable of thinking what made the other guy say what he did.

I hope I've not been too incomprehensible...