Narrative Warfare

“You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep spring from coming.” — Pablo Neruda

While our governments are churning out ever more innovative and destructive technologies in the business of war, they also invest in narrative warfare. Convincing people of the necessity of war, who is evil, who is the biggest victim, who deserves no sympathy, and other polarising narrative disputes, can be more important than the battles fought on the ground.

Obviously, narrative warfare has little to do with truth. As Hannah Arendt said: (and we keep quoting) “Truthfulness has never been counted among the political virtues, and lies have always been regarded as justifiable tools in political dealings.” This is as true now as it was back in the day. 

For those of us searching for and defending truth, this is hard to challenge. Facts alone do not convince people. Most of us do not have the platform, influence, or resources to match institutional narratives, and it seems the more lies are exposed, the more they lie. 

The warmongers are fighting to impose their stories, their versions of history. Whether it’s preserving their version of the past, or deciding the future. However, despite what some of them might believe, history is no longer written only by those who win, by the victor, by the imperialist. Could this be to our advantage? 

History moves. History is open and changing. History never ceases to be uncovered. History is collective. And so are our words.

While we must take care of the stories we write, post, and share, we must also refuse to let our words, our languages be held hostage. No government, group or individual, for that matter, owns our words. 

We must liberate our language from the hold of those who seek to close down the exchange of ideas, those who think they own history.

Holding words hostage is a strategy, not a search for truth. Governments and institutions that are branding anyone criticising the actions of Israel antisemitic are not trying to root out and eliminate antisemitism. They are weaponizing language. It’s a witch hunt. Their aim is to  scapegoat, quash criticism, shut down debate, isolate people into opposing groups and avoid admitting they are wrong.

But it didn’t work in the past and it will not work today. Shutting down conversation is a form of close-mindedness, a fear of truth. It is the last refuge of those who have lost moral standing.

While it may harm democracy and its understanding in the short term; people do not stop expressing their opinions, concerns, and outrage at injustices because governments legislate against it. Quite the opposite, in fact. Just look at what is happening across university campuses in America. It’s in our nature to resist. 

Repression emboldens. It makes us subversive, more radical, more creative. It seeds new solidarities. Whatever means may be used, what we have in common is our search for truth and common ground. No matter how hard or heartbreaking things might seem.

But we must take care that we do not use similar tactics in our interpersonal exchanges. More and more we are seeing and experiencing the shutting down of conversations within our families, communities, and organisations. By policing everyone’s language we are doing the work of authoritarianism.

Writer and activist Vu Le worries that people have become more upset at the word genocide being used, than they are at the actual genocide being committed. “We must centre justice over civility,” he says, “we need to worry more about the massacre of civilians than about the word choices and tone people are using to call it out.”

Safety is another word being weaponized. People equate feeling unsafe with being unsafe and use this to shut down debate. And this, Natasha Lennard writes, has been normalised in the oversimplified liberal discourse. “The need to distinguish between feeling safe and being safe is both urgent and undeniably fraught,” she writes.

“Writing as a professor and a Jew, with a profound commitment to my students’ safety and well-being,” Lennard writes, “I see an imperative for them to learn to distinguish between genuine threat and paranoia — that their judgments of the world be grounded and attentive to the workings of power, propaganda, and ideology.”

So what do we do?

It’s more important to speak the truth than to be accommodating. We must resist self-censorship. Refuse classification. Refuse the pro this or pro that. Refuse banning words that describe the horrors inflicted on people. Refuse to answer questions that condemn us to fixed positions. We must seek refuge in grey areas, in confusion, in nuance. We must refuse to dumb down. And we must answer stupid questions with profound ones. 

In the words of Franz Kafka, “Not everyone can see the truth, but he can be it.” 

Words, Veronica Yates and illustration, Miriam Sugranyes

References

Truth and Politics, Hannah Arendt.

‘Pro-Israel Advocates Are Weaponizing “Safety” on College Campuses,’ Natasha Lennart, The Intercept, 28 March 2024. Read here.

‘I Am a Jewish Student at Columbia. Don’t Believe What You’re Being Told About ‘Campus Antisemitism,’ Jonathan Ben-Menachem, Zeteo, 23 April, 2024. Read here.

‘Berlin police ban Irish protesters from speaking or singing in Irish at pro-Palestine ‘ciorcal comhrá’ near Reichstag,’ Irish Independent, Adrianna Wrona, 22 April 2024. Read here.

‘Protesting against slaughter – as students in the US are doing – isn’t antisemitism,’ Robert Reich, 23 April 2024. Read here.

“In the West, Israel never initiates violence, it only 'retaliates,’”Joseph Massad, 20 March 2024. Middle East Eye. Read here.

‘Statement on the Western Media Narrative Regarding Israel’s Genocide in Gaza,’ The Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention, 14 April 2024. Read here.

Further Resources

Exploring International Humanitarian Law: Glossary, International Committee of the Red Cross. Dowload the (short) pdf here.

Anti Palestinian Racism resource website: https://antipalestinianracism.org/


Social Media Guidelines for Professionals supporting human rights for Palestinians here. By We for P, Empowering Palestine Advocates. 

The European Legal Support Centre, https://elsc.support/, to report incidents of repression against advocates for Palestinian rights in Europe, including free legal support and strategic litigation.

Office of the Ms. Irene Khan, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression: https://www.ohchr.org/en/special-procedures/sr-freedom-of-opinion-and-expression 

Essential Reading

1984, George Orwell.

The Trial, Franz Kafka.

Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela.

The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon.

Orientalism, Edward Said.

The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt.

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