Language, War and Peace

This post by Phil Vernon of International Alert – The anti-lexicon of peacebuilding: listening to Edward Saïd and George Orwell – raises some excellent points about the need for language to be clear in the field of peacebuilding (and elsewhere) to avoid ‘misunderstandings and misdiagnoses’.

It is agreed that in order for conflict resolution and peacebuilding efforts to be successful, regularly used concepts need to be unpacked and each enjoy a shared, specific and clear meaning. Without a shared understanding of such concepts it is hard for action to be co-ordinated, coherent, efficient and effective. It is also hard to monitor and evaluate progress, identify and utilise lessons learned and best practice, and ultimately improve efforts to prevent and respond to conflict and its challenges. Actions and outputs are less likely to be ambiguous, conflicting and ineffective if communication is clear and the language used to describe aims and outputs is shared and unambiguous.

However, aims and outputs of various actors in conflict-affected environments are not always harmonious, and a shared – if ambiguous – language can be used (and often is) to disguise competing agendas and real priorities. The language of peacebuilding can often be used by those engaged in this field to disguise the politics of intervention. It can also be used to reinforce power relations within the field, which tend to marginalise ‘other’ voices – including those directly affected by conflict and those whose future’s most depend upon the success of peacebuilding.

It is also important to recognise the policy implications of certain concepts and understand the reasons why certain concepts are ascribed to certain phenomena, states or processes above others. As the beginning of the SCID Course addresses, describing a state as failed or fragile may be motivated more out of a desire on the part of other states to intervene (and control threats, or extend their own influence and power, or distract domestic populations from other issues/other threats), rather than ‘concern for the inability of some states to provide for their own population’s security, welfare and rights’ (Call, 2008: 1504). Similarly, describing governance as ‘weak’ may be unhelpful insofar as it often overlooks informal systems of governance and insofar as it is often used as shorthand (and thus specific details or supporting evidence need not be provided). However, it is precisely this value – overlooking the specificities of each system of governance – that makes the term ‘weak governance’ so useful, and tends to generate similar policy responses.

It is suggested that it is necessary to recognise the complexity, power and political dimensions of language – and the ways that it can be used to reinforce or challenge power relations; legitimise actions and intervention; and rationalise, exploit or hide competing agendas. Perhaps we need to accept that the language used in peacebuilding – as elsewhere – can be ambiguous with the same concept being used to mean different things by different people, for instance – just as peace and conflict are experience and mean different things to different people. Rather than aiming to be objective and specific in our use of language, perhaps we need to accept that language is a social construct: it is as part of conflict and peace as it is the tool used to understand these phenomena; it is a means through which conflicts are fought, and peace is forged; it reinforces or shifts power relations and as such is at the heart of conflict. It is informed by our specific experiences as well as shared histories and cultures, as much as it reflects our aspirations and intentions (whether at the micro or macro level). It is suggested that there can be no objectivity when it comes to the language we use: what is important is that we become aware of our subjectivity and how it is reflected in the language we use. In that way we can start to accept the legitimacy of ‘other’ perspectives as well as start to question the validity of metanarratives about conflict and peace – and in such a way potentially better contribute to building more peaceful societies (however we might define them).


Reference: Call, C. (2008) ‘The Fallacy of the “Failed State”’, Third World Quarterly, 28(8): 1491-1507.

Phil Vernon's blog

I think Edward Saïd wrote somewhere that the USA can never hope to contribute to sustainable peace in the Middle East until it is willing and able to describe the situation there objectively, comprehensively and accurately. Good advice for President Obama and his new Secretary of State as they embark on four challenging years in the region. And good advice meanwhile for anyone, be they doctor, secretary of state, international NGO staff member or anyone else, who takes on responsibility to help others fix their problems.

George Orwell, in his 1940s essay, Politics and the English Language (downloadable freely through Google), developed six golden rules for writing clearly about politics:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3. If it is possible to cut…

View original post 1,207 more words

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