Naming things

A Jewish woman (self-identified) who attended the talk in Victoria wrote an eloquent protest to Shaw TV, the company that banned the video of it (see previous post, Our Way to Fight, banned in BC!).

She also sent a note to me, which included this: “I noted your use of the word apartheid in your comments on the Shaw decision, something you have not stressed in the past…. I do not think the application of this term will open hearts and minds…  Better a different nomenclature in my view….one of mutual regard, justice, and human rights, equality… terms Jews recognize and relate to.”

I understand her point.  It got me thinking about the naming of things, and the uses of language – both important to me.  After all, these are my tools.

I am angrier as a person than as a writer.  As a writer I take it as a responsibility to filter my own reactions in order to do the best job I can in conveying the stories and contexts of people I write about.  Sometimes that means holding, even biting my tongue.

However, as situations evolve, for better or worse, the naming of them should also evolve.  It seems irresponsible not to write as clearly as possible what I see, hear and believe.  We are inundated with endlessly repeated images and language that blur meaning and distort reality, and too often we are led to believe what should be patently unbelievable.  How else, given all that we know by now about the monstrous wars of aggression on Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, how else could we now be led sheep-like towards a monstrous war of aggression on Iran?

In the past I held back from using the phrase Israeli apartheid, not because it’s provocative, nor because I really doubted it, but because I didn’t understand its application to Israel-Palestine well enough to confidently absorb this borrowed term into my own language.

In using borrowed words like ‘apartheid,’ I tend to learn from people I trust who are more deeply immersed in and affected by situations that the words try to describe.  Here that means Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, and Israeli and North American Jewish activists.  All of whom use descriptive language far more emphatic and forceful than mine.  It is from them that I learned to say Israeli apartheid.  Also I learned it from South Africans, Jewish and not, who know apartheid when they see it, as it’s defined by the United Nations, and confirm that what they see in Palestine-Israel is without any doubt apartheid.

From everything I read, see and hear from people and sources I trust, conditions in Israel-Palestine are deteriorating rapidly, most horrifically of course for Palestinians, but also more insidiously for many Israelis.  Under the circumstances, sometimes I feel ashamed for being too cautious in my language, when honesty seems to cry out for much stronger words.

This comment came to the blog yesterday from Kevin Neish:  “I’m an ISM [International Solidarity Movement] connected activist who’s been to Palestine as a human shield and was on board the Mavi Marmara when it was attacked by the IDF.  I attended Mr. Riordon’s Victoria event and I felt it was an extremely balanced presentation, to the point that I was actually upset that he was leaning too far towards accommodating the Zionist Israeli positions.  If peaceful, moderate discussions are not permitted on issues like this then it will sadly only encourage violent responses and solutions to happen.”

I understand his point about the danger of leaning too far.  It makes me squirm, as it should.  And I can’t take the easy line of many smug politicians, ‘Well, if both sides are critical of what I do, then I must be doing something right!’  Hiding behind such glib nonsense, they seek to absolve themselves of responsibility for their own thoughts, words and actions.

This struggle with language, with naming things, is one of the primary reasons why I write the blog.  I see it as a kind of ‘open book,’ which lets me follow stories that might otherwise seem to end where the book does.  Obviously life and history don’t work like that, so the blog is a useful vehicle for transcending the finite entity that is a book.

It also lets my language to evolve as it should, in parallel to reality, so that I can name things as I see them.

About Michael Riordon

Canadian writer and documentary-maker Michael Riordon writes/ directs/produces books and articles, audio, video and film documentaries, plays for radio and stage. A primary goal of his work is to recover voices and stories of people who have been silenced or marginalized, written out of the official version: First Nations (aboriginal) youth, Mozambican farmers, inmates in Canadian prisons, traditional healers in Fiji, queer folk across Canada, Guatemalan labour activists. Michael also leads courses, workshops and seminars for community organizations, trade unions, schools, colleges and universities.
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