War Words

The word “war” is working overtime these days. We’ve got wars on terror, poverty, greed, anorexia, food waste, climate change, cancer, science, religion, culture, clutter, fat… One high school even got in on the act recently with a new literacy program. “It’s WAR!” the school’s newsletter shouted. “Literacy: the WAR on Error is here!”

In reality, there’s little meaning in the war word when it’s overused like this. Which is a shame, because at the heart of these “wars” are concerns important to many of us. We’re putting a lot of energy into them all, but is war-like energy the best sort to be using?

War implies battles, aggressive confrontation. That tiny word is jam-packed with other words, all fighting amongst themselves for room: good and evil, friend and foe, in and out, us and them, right and wrong, winners and losers.

Who or what is whipping it all up? We see it in our parliaments and the media. But we all do it at times. We’re all caught up in the daily spectacle of words thrown about wildly. We seem to have lost the ability to distinguish between superficial dramas and deep-seated problems – between what is theatre and what is real. Razzed up, we use aggressive and divisive language for problems that actually need calm and careful consideration. Sure, they need passion too, but great feeling doesn’t have to be noisy.

When someone is pushing their own opinion and they don’t want to know anyone else’s, there is often a certain, shrill tone in their voice. It’s the sound of the truth according to them, pitted against the truth of “the other”. Often all we want to do in response is cover our ears and run. Or react with fighting words. Like our hunter-gatherer ancestors did when faced with a sabre-toothed tiger, we flee or we fight. We treat each other as dangerous animals. Which on the whole we’re not. We treat common problems as unexpected and unwelcome strangers. Which they needn’t be. They’re universal, a part of being human.

One public leader who seems to get this better than most is US President-elect Barack Obama. In his now famous Philadelphia speech, he advised not to “simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative”. Obama is intriguing: even-tempered, he listens, then weighs and chooses his words carefully, inclusively, showing a way different to what we’ve become used to over the past decade.

Instead of banging on about the “war on this” and the “war on that” – phrases that divide us or cause us to tune out – we need words that position us to stay and consciously listen. Such as “debate” – from Latin words for “reversing a fight”. Or “deliberate” – Latin for “consider carefully”. Put them together and we’d reverse the fighting talk and respond with more care.

Then there’s “conversation”. It’s from a Latin word meaning “to keep company with”, which was originally made up of two words that meant “to turn with”. It’s a lovely image: people sitting together, bringing their attention towards each other, exchanging ideas, turning them over, looking at them this way and that, in an unhurried, intensely alive way.

In the face of constant media and political prodding, we need to maintain mature, intelligent conversations, made up of words that can move mountains with the force of their graceful intentions – discussions that might lead us to discover a bit more about something, enlarge our understanding, even shift our position a little.

What if, instead of using war-like words, we referred to “The History Deliberations” or “The Culture Conversations”? What if we talked about “The Injustice of Poverty” or “The Many Different Approaches Needed to Deal with How Drugs are Used in our Society” (long, but a bit more real). These might seem less definite and clear-cut in the action they propose, but the upside is there’s a feeling of space in them. There’s room to think and feel and breathe. And hear different voices and angles, and come up with new ideas and possibilities.

We delude ourselves that there are simple solutions just waiting for one mighty sweep of action with the intensity of a war. Actually, maybe that amount of energy would fix it – if instead of being channelled into war, it went into genuine listening and well-considered action.

In post-apartheid South Africa, Nelson Mandela is said to have responded calmly to a volatile outburst during difficult negotiations, by saying, “Now we have aired our views and our feelings, we face the question: how do we move forward?”

Talking reasonably is not for wusses. It takes strength and courage. You have to be able to let go of the vain hope that things will pan out exactly how you think they should. You have to accommodate others. When there’s a generosity of spirit at play, this isn’t as painful as we might imagine.

In war talk there’s little room for doubt, uncertainty or humility. War talk fills up any space with fear; it forces our energy into crazy battles. In this corner we have the black armband, in that one, the white. Who’s going to win? No one, of course.

The makers of the beautiful Latin language knew how to depict a few home truths. The Latin word for “war” is bellum, and is where the word “belligerent” comes from. Our modern-day word for war has more recent origins, coming from an old English/French/German word, werre, which means “worse”.