Reject passive and dehumanizing language

Language can kill. Image courtesy of Mondoweiss


Language has the potential to become a dangerous tool when weaponized by oppressive powers. 

The words we use — whether we speak them, write them or hear them — have the power to deeply impact our social and political perceptions. Over the past few months, the war on Gaza has produced headlines and journalistic think pieces that have employed language that is dehumanizing and passive towards Palestinians. 

Dr. Tom Mould, a professor in the history, anthropology and classics department, offered some insight into the weight that our words can hold. 

“Language is incredibly powerful,” Mould said. “In some cases, it has political power … Language works really well when it’s both verbal and it’s written.” 

Currently, much of the media coverage regarding Palestine has utilized distinctly passive language. One of the most common examples of this is media outlets saying that Palestinians have “died” instead of explicitly saying that they have been “killed.” This is in direct contrast to headlines that will typically refer to Israeli deaths in non-passive ways. For example, as of January 2024, the use of the word “massacre” has been used a total of 120 to describe Israeli deaths and only four times to describe Palestinian deaths within major news outlets such as The New York Times, LA Times, and The Washington Post. It is evident that our language is heavily skewed. 

Sophomore computer science major Omar Daas is Palestinian American, and he noted that the use of passive language towards Palestinians minimizes their experiences within the war. 

“It places a [lessened] emphasis on the importance of [Palestinian] lives,” Daas said. “[Palestinians are] not viewed as worthy victims. They’re not viewed as people who you should have compassion for. They’re viewed almost [as] more of an obstacle.” 

The use of passive language absolves Israel of responsibility. Malkah Bird, a chapter leader of Indiana’s Jewish Voice for Peace, had some additional insight regarding this. 

“We hear things like ‘these Palestinians died,’” Bird said. “But it doesn’t say who killed the [Palestinian] reporter. It doesn’t say who was responsible for that. So it really clears Israel of all responsibility from out of the equation.” 

In addition to the killed-versus-died phenomenon, there is also the use of other terminology that downplays Israel’s actions against Palestinians. 

“We see words like ‘clashes’ being used when we talk about [the murder of Palestinians],” Bird said. “When we see the facts of the situation, what we know is that oftentimes these are Israeli military raids of refugee camps or people’s homes [and] neighborhoods.” 

Another example of the use of passive language is the media’s reluctance to accept that Palestine is being starved instead of experiencing a famine. A famine is something uncontrollable. Intentionally starving a population, on the other hand, is a war crime. 

“There’s a big difference between ‘starving’ and ‘being starved,’” Bird said. “‘Being starved’ is what’s actually happening, and it’s a war crime. And we know that that’s what Israel is doing as part of their hostilities [as] part of their genocide on Gaza.” 

Israel is intentionally depriving Palestinians of food and other basic resources. The deliberate effort to keep Palestinians starving is not a famine, and failing to recognize that has major consequences in how the world perceives — or rather, is unable to perceive — Israel as a guilty and genocidal power. 

Dr. Teigha VanHester, assistant professor of race, gender and sexuality studies, provided insight into why passive language has become so common when talking about Palestine. 

“We live in a capitalist democracy,” VanHester said. “While there’s an extreme human rights violation and genocide taking place against the Palestinian people, our interest in oil or expanding our government ideology is superseding human life, which is a problem, especially when so many of the general public proletariat citizens of the U.S. do not agree with the conduct of our government.” 

When our governments have foreign interests that supplant the desire to protect and preserve human life, man-made crises like this arise. The general American public wants a ceasefire and for aid to be allowed into Gaza. At what point do we begin to acknowledge that our alleged democracy is far from what it claims to be? 

“If we hold [Israel] accountable, or if the white supremacist [American] government that we have holds [Israel] accountable, then we have to be held accountable for what we did to Black people,” VanHester said. “And what we did to Native American people. And we still have colonies. I’m American Samoan, and that’s U.S. territory; we’re stateless people. And [the American government] would have to answer for all those things. So instead of opening that Pandora’s box that requires white supremacy to end … it’s minimized and kind of gaslights the American people.” 

It is imperative that we begin to think critically about the language that we use and consume, especially with respect to the headlines we see. To end the war crimes and human rights crises we are witnessing, we must acknowledge that they exist in the first place. Refusing to call what is happening in Palestine a genocide impacts how we view the Palestinians, Muslims and Arabs around us. 

“It has to be stopped, and to be stopped it has to be recognized,” Daas said. “Using passive language, to some extent, denies the scale of the crimes happening in Palestine … Language should be very intentional. It should be thought about. When reporting on casualties … you need to recognize that these are people [and] that they aren’t just numbers [and] that they have faces. They have families. They have stories.” 

We have to decolonize our language. We have to start thinking critically. We have to reject the propagandized narratives that are spoon-fed to us. 

A failure to do these things has far-reaching consequences. Our language impacts the way we view the world around us, and using dehumanizing language to describe Palestinians exacerbates xenophobia, racism and Islamophobia. There are genuine consequences that various marginalized identities face when we fail to think critically about the language we use and interact with. 

When language kills, we can either resist colonized, dehumanizing language or choose to be complicit.


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