It's All in the Frame

I've been in some interesting conversations this week over the conflict in Gaza, especially surrounding a single question:

What is the maximum possible difference between what we say and what we do?

In other words, can you dehumanize a group of people verbally and still treat them humanely in practice? Some very intelligent friends of mine say yes. I could not disagree more. 

This is not the first time this argument has been deployed in defense of indefensible statements by politicians. "He's just playing to the base," for example, is a common excuse for using radical rhetoric with private audiences. Fair enough--we all use speech and other forms of language to explore the truth and try on new ideas, and it is not fair to hold people accountable for every thing they have ever said. 

But there is an undeniable link between what we say and who we become, and it goes a level deeper than just the social and political obligations we create when we declare ourselves on one side or another of an argument. The language we use constrains our very thinking.

Examples of this abound, not only in conflict studies or politics or public relations but in virtually every aspect of our lives. Take, for example, this article someone sent me to today based on a study led by the University of Toronto, which concluded that calling a partner your "soul mate" can actually destroy your relationship: 

The idea [with Lee’s study] is that if we are soul mates, then nothing will go wrong in our relationship, and it will be easy. A conflict makes a destiny-believer question whether the current partner is actually their soul mate, and then they give up on working it out,” Lee told New York magazine.

In other words, if you believe that conflict with your partner is a natural part of life's journey together, your odds of working it out are really high. On the other hand, if you use the language of destiny, such as "soul mate," you are actually less capable of seeing solutions.

As usual, science backs up what we already know: The language we use impacts how we think, and the way we think flows directly into what we do. We use words to name, define, and make concrete all the things in our world that would otherwise be impossible not just to communicate, but to understand. The way we frame problems--as inevitable or unnecessary, as static or as dynamic, as too big to tackle or as a series of surmountable obstacles--is directly linked to our ability to solve them. 

That's why I refuse to describe myself as either a strategist or a communicator, though I do both kinds of work. Communications is strategy, and vice versa. What we say becomes what we believe, and what we believe becomes what we do. 

Which takes us back to Gaza and the language of so-called "intractable" conflicts. Where people stop speaking of others as people, you can be sure the process of dehumanization has begun. Where hope of a solution has been lost, you can be sure no solution will be found. When parties believe that conflict is Biblically foretold and therefore inevitable, they curse it.  Yet the reverse is also true, and just as powerful: When we believe that we have it within ourselves and others to overcome conflict, we begin to see possibilities for peace.

Believing a solution is possible is not the same thing as finding one. But it is certainly the only place to start.