- Emma Louise Alvarez
Reclaiming the Word ‘Conflict’ for the International Day of Peace
© Illustration by INJECTION - Alicia Lupieri
The way we use language matters - how do we perceive different ‘conflicts’ based on how they are described by major news outlets?
Crisis. Conflict. War.
These have become common words in our everyday news consumption. But can they be used interchangeably? And why does the way we use language matter?
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) estimates that 274 million people will need humanitarian aid in 2022. Out of these two hundred seventy-four million, the United Nations and partner organizations aim to assist 183 million people “most in need” across 63 countries, which will require an estimated $41 billion.
But how would they categorize that? How is it possible to decide which countries and which people are suffering ‘the most’? And what role do major media outlets play in covering different ‘conflicts’ worldwide?
I intentionally put the words ‘conflict,’ and ‘war’ in single quotation marks because these words are not interchangeable.
In April 2021, the Human Rights Watch released a report evaluating Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. It concluded that specific policies and practices were so severe that they amounted to “crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.” However, when researching any combination of words including ‘Israel’ and ‘Palestine,’ Google offers a summary alongside the different browser options detailing the “Israel-Palestine Conflict,” with news outlets such as the BBC, The New York Times, and Al Jazeera stubbornly tying the word ‘conflict’ to the crimes of apartheid being committed in Palestine.
The way we use language matters. Not only is the word ‘conflict’ obscured by harmful connotations, but the truth of what is happening in Israel and Palestine is also misrepresented.
Another example of the misuse of the word ‘conflict’ is in the representation of the ongoing civil war in Ethiopia, in the region of Tigray. In November 2020, the Ethiopian government began military operations against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. In a report released in April 2022, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have found that “Amhara regional security forces, with Ethiopian federal forces' complicity, are responsible for the ethnic cleansing of Tigrayans from Western Tigray.” It is interesting then that the Human Rights Watch also summarizes the crimes against humanity committed in Tigray as part of the Tigray “conflict.”
The importance of the use of the word ‘conflict’ lies in the importance of conflict resolution.
By using it interchangeably with the words ‘war’ and ‘crisis’ and employing it to summarize crimes against humanity, the word ‘conflict’ becomes an inherently negative term. It restricts how we can understand the context of the conflict and how we approach it.
However, major media outlets also play a crucial role in the way in which ‘conflicts’ are framed and understood. Inaccurate or inconsistent language usage in describing different conflicts, wars, or crises, obscures the structural and cultural causes of violence. Such is the case with the ongoing civil war in Ethiopia and the crimes of apartheid committed in Palestine.
The language used in discussing different conflicts, crises, and wars is also of interest. Between the UN committing to assisting those ‘most’ in need to the decentralizing of ‘faraway’ wars from the Westernized sense of security, we are subconsciously influenced to view all ‘conflicts’ from the same perspective, the same lens. This lens is one of privilege. One that allows us to understand some wars as ‘more severe' than others and feel that some stories of trauma hit closer to home.
On Thursday, February 24th, Russia commenced a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine. The Human Rights Watch has been documenting cases of human rights violations committed by the Russian military, using the terms ‘armed conflict’ and ‘war’ interchangeably. Notable is that in response to the call for aid to support Ukrainian refugees and the Ukrainian ‘right to defend themselves,’ a UN spokesperson said that “this is among the fastest and most generous responses a humanitarian flash appeal has ever received.”
While this could solely be perceived as a positive reaction to the call for aid, freelance journalists working for The New Humanitarian, an independent non-profit news organization, offered an analysis of the extent to which Ukraine’s “aid bonanza” comes at the expense of other crises.
The Ukraine war is not perceived as some ‘faraway’ war. Its extensive media coverage reinforces the trauma suffered on a more individual and personal level. It is not to be digested solely in terms of numbers.
The inconsistent use of language and the extent to which different conflicts, crises, and wars are covered affects the way in which they are understood.
Dudley Weeks, in Eight Essential Steps to Conflict Resolution, poses the following:
‘The truth is, however, that conflict is neither positive nor negative in and of itself. Conflict is an outgrowth of the diversity that characterizes our thoughts, our attitudes, our beliefs, our perceptions, and our social systems and structures. It is as much a part of our existence as is evolution. Each of us has influence and power over whether or not conflict becomes negative, and that influence and power is found in the way we handle it.’
Reclaiming the word ‘conflict’ allows us to take back that influence and power in deciding for ourselves the way in which we understand how our social systems and structures collapse and change. That there may be an opportunity for resolution and positive change, perhaps even revolution.
By understanding the ways in which language and major media channels frame different conflicts, crises, and wars, we take back our autonomy on how to perceive and understand ‘conflict.’