Brooke Gladstone: This is On The Media's Midweek podcast. I'm Brooke Gladstone. In trying to navigate the internet in the midst of war, you might have noticed a pervasive feature, the urgent call to take a public stand. The New York Times illustrated the trend in the form of a montage.
Female Speaker 1: If you're a human being and you're not outraged by this, that is a serious problem. Where is your humanity?
Male Speaker 1: You're going to have to pick a side.
Female Speaker 1: There's no equivocating this.
Female Speaker 2: Your silence is deafening.
Male Speaker 2: You got to pick a side. You better pick a side.
Male Speaker 3: I don't know how you can sit there and say, "I don't support either side."
Female Speaker 3: What's your opinion on the war in the Middle East? I'm afraid I'm going to have to insist on an answer.
Brooke Gladstone: So many people, corporations, and industries have put their stakes in the ground all over the internet.
Female Speaker 4: Statements have poured in from pretty much every direction to comment on the Hamas attack and the war that's followed, including Amazon, American Eagle, the NFL, and even Local Fitness Studios.
Female Speaker 5: The University of Florida president issuing a viral statement saying in part, "There is no defense for terrorism. This shouldn't be hard."
Female Speaker 6: Starbucks is suing the union that represents many of its employees over its social media posts about the Israel-Hamas war. Company says Workers United's pro-Palestinian post angered hundreds of customers and hurt its reputation.
Brooke Gladstone: In Hollywood, things were especially fraught. The Writer's Guild of America West issued an apology to its members after an outcry for the, "Tremendous pain" caused by its decision not to release a statement. No matter if you're a citizen or a celebrity, a business or an institution, it seems like the expectation to take a position applies to everyone.
Sam Adler-Bell: There's a familiar feeling about the language that they use. It's very careful and ends up saying very little.
Brooke Gladstone: Sam Adler-Bell is a writer and co-host of the podcast, Know Your Enemy. He says that the vocabulary of those public declarations has become unhelpful, something that's been dubbed, statementese. He says the ire drawn is causing some places of higher education, like Williams College in Massachusetts, to leave the page blank.
Sam Adler-Bell: The university president there had been having some anxiety about this new norm of requiring the institution to put out a statement every time something big happens in the news for some time before the attack in Israel. The university president decided to put out a statement that said, "We're not putting out statements anymore." A similar thing happened at Stanford University, where there was a little controversy about the initial statement, and then they put out a longer statement basically explaining why they were foregoing the putting out of statements for the future.
Brooke Gladstone: How did statement lovers handle that? Because there's a lot of variation of the phrase, "Your silence is noted." It's sent to all sorts of businesses and brands, celebrities, influencers. If the colleges kept mum, was that noted?
Sam Adler-Bell: I'm sure it was. Something to keep in mind about this is that 10 years ago, 15 years ago, if you wanted to know what a university thought about a particular political event or international tragedy, or if you wanted to know what the New York Mets thought about some war going on in the world, you'd have to call the New York Mets as a reporter or the New York Mets would have to pay for a ad in the New York Times, more than have to have a press conference, which would all be very confounding to all of us because why does the New York Mets have an opinion about this anyway? Now because of the internet, anybody can find these statements and people can demand that these statements come out.
Brooke Gladstone: Let me ask you about the statements that even ordinary people seem to adopt when indulging in or impelled to indulge in statementese.
Sam Adler-Bell: It depends on what kind of person it is, because if somebody's very politicized about this issue and they have a strong belief about it, they may put out something really, really unequivocal and strong.
Brooke Gladstone: Is that statementese?
Sam Adler-Bell: That I would not define as statementese, but what I find more amusing is the individual people who adopt statementese when they comment on this. It seems like a person who has a press secretary, like your uncle Dean putting out a statement that says, "While I, of course, condemn X, I also feel that Y," or some stranger on the internet who says, "Two things can be true at once." It's a really strange compulsion as if we're all living our lives operating as if we ourselves are a brand with brand consultants and crisis managers telling us how not to upset too many of our followers, our friends, and family.
Brooke Gladstone: Of course, the need isn't entirely about brand management, people just seem to feel the need, and I wonder why. Is it for solace to connect with the community?
Sam Adler-Bell: I think there's different motivations. I think for some people, there's a sense that this is an issue, Israel-Palestine, which they're supposed to have a strong opinion about or supposed to know a lot about, but I think a relatively small number of people in the United States do know a lot about it and have had a long-held opinion about it. It's something that's been in the air in our political life for a long, long time, so people have that feeling of, like, "Oh, I'm supposed to know something about this and I'm supposed to say something about this." That's when they rely on the most vague, platitudinous language.
I do think there's a way to be more sympathetic, which is that the debate about Israel and Palestine is one that has been confined to a very narrow range of acceptable opinions in our political life, in Washington, in DC for a very long time, so that there's a feeling that some people have that there's really no way to dislodge the basic contours of this debate, these narrow confines of opinion.
Brooke Gladstone: Which you would identify as within institution's almost uniformly, pro whatever it is the Israel government wants to do?
Sam Adler-Bell: Something closer to that. What I want to say, whichever side you're on, as a result of the feeling that this has been an issue that has been very static, I think there's a sense that the only thing we can do is get our statements just right rather than that we might be able to change the political terrain on which the actual policymaking about this issue is taking place.
Brooke Gladstone: Although I do know some people who believe that these expressions in the aggregate do matter, do have some political heft?
Sam Adler-Bell: I hope that that's true just in the sense that I hope that our democracy is still functioning in some way.
Brooke Gladstone: I found it really interesting. You observed that this impulse to weigh in, in the social media age, really gained speed during Black Lives Matter. If you look online and you look for Silence is Deafening or Your Silence is Noted, it almost always comes down to white silence, silence by people unaffected by living Black in America. I think it gave this statement-making impulse wings.
Sam Adler-Bell: I think if you want to tell a story about how we got to this point where brands and institutions and universities felt that they need to put out a statement any time there's some big story, can be linked back to Black Lives Matter, the first era of Black Lives Matter, to some extent, but especially in 2020. I think the thing that's different about that was that in that era, the colleges were basically being pressured to say something against police brutality, against racism, which the constituents of the university, the teachers, the students, the staff, all more or less probably agreed that police brutality was wrong, and the killing of Black people by police was awful.
They could put out these statements and then the question would be whether their statement was strong enough or not, but there weren't competing constituencies in the way that there are with this issue. These brands and institutions adopted a norm of putting out these kinds of statements. Now with this issue, people have strong opinions on different sides of it, so they can't possibly please everyone. I think this obsessive focus on the statements was also in 2020 a way of distracting us from the real stakes.
Brooke Gladstone: Meaning, words took the place of action as they so often do, hit a like and you've done your political activism for the day?
Sam Adler-Bell: Yes. The Black Lives Matter movement had some successes in policy across the country, and I think those are extraordinary, but not as much as you might have thought at the moment when we were having the largest protests in American history, some people say, in terms of changing the structures of racial inequality in this country. A lot of that energy was certainly absorbed by this kind of corporate virtue signaling, which satisfies in the short term, but then ultimately doesn't get anything done.
Brooke Gladstone: We should say that there wasn't and hasn't ever been unanimous support for Black Lives Matter.
Sam Adler-Bell: No.
Brooke Gladstone: Either the organizations that Black Lives Matter creates or informs or even the basic principles. It has been as polarizing as every single other American value in this political era.
Sam Adler-Bell: I think there's something else to say about how BLM informs the debate we're having now, and that's that I think an enormous number of young people, especially people who are college-age now, were politicized, radicalized even, and brought into an understanding of politics through that movement. The organization itself and the political education that took place within that movement had a critique of Israel and Palestine. A lot of people learned about this issue through participation in BLM. I think that's one of the reasons that it feels so different this time, that there are so many more young people who seem to be expressing solidarity with Palestine and especially using certain language in which to express solidarity with Palestine.
Brooke Gladstone: What kind of language?
Sam Adler-Bell: Language about decolonization, about race and ethnicity, about ethnonationalism, about resisting oppression and the right of the oppressed to resist. I think a lot of that language was learned through participation in BLM, but also through the kinds of language you learn in a seminar on campus. I just want to point out that I just feel that this is such a different moment. I was thinking about the 2014 Gaza War, which was another massive siege on Gaza, and there was nothing like this level of participation on the pro-Palestine side by young people, by anyone. There wasn't nearly as much debate.
Brooke Gladstone: Even though whatever the numbers may actually have been, there is usually a vastly disproportionate number of Palestinian deaths.
Sam Adler-Bell: It hadn't begun by the largest attack on Israeli civilian life since 1948. It's different and I think that that's partially because young people have been politicized in a way to think about this issue in a different way.
Brooke Gladstone: Bring us back to statementese. It isn't just young people.
Sam Adler-Bell: We have learned in the past few years to think of our political participation very much as a form of statements of solidarity, statements of witnessing, of testifying, and the effectiveness of those speech acts on politics are less important than that we show which side we're on, that we show that we're the kind of person that thinks this or thinks that, so that we can show to our community, this is who I am. Now those things are important. It's important for people to develop their political identities through communication with others. It isn't coterminous with being politically engaged and trying to affect a particular political outcome. It has a lot more to do with the way people see themselves and how their communities see them.
Brooke Gladstone: You wrote, "Powerless to influence actual policy outcomes, we settle for battling over discourse." You noted that the political theorist we've had on the show, Corey Robin, recently noted that the "passivity" of the verbs we so often use now, all of which are oriented to the pastness of things, as if action has already occurred, not something to be done. He noted words like, witness and acknowledge, mourn, grieve, testify. What did you think about that?
Sam Adler-Bell: There's a strange way in which this statement fixation, in which statementese I think it's a product of a feeling of helplessness or a condition of helplessness, but that it also encourages helplessness. It demobilizes people.
Brooke Gladstone: Why do you think it demobilizes people?
Sam Adler-Bell: Because of the sorts of things we've already said. For one thing that makes you feel like what you do as a political actor is say something and respond to the other things that people are saying. When I think right now there's an enormous amount of work that can be done if you're someone who wishes that the civilian death toll in Gaza was lower. There are protests all over the country. There are really inspiring protests by Jews who are saying, "Don't do this in our name. We grieve. We mourn, of course, the dead in Israel we know them, we love them, but don't do this in our name."
I think that I'm really inspired by people who are taking action right now. I think that sometimes the backward-looking statementese makes people feel that it's already all over. It's already all done. There's nothing that we can do, there's nothing we can change. Just as a democratic matter, that shouldn't be the case.
Brooke Gladstone: You said for Americans to submit to helplessness is a moral perversion.
Sam Adler-Bell: Yes, I think that. Whatever side of this issue you're on, America's posture in relation to Israel could be decisive in the outcome of this war. That's always been the case. For Americans, if they feel strongly about it, to sit on the sidelines and act like they're helpless, I mean, to put a finer point on it, how much more helpless are Palestinians than Americans? Americans, we have a representative government. We can call our congresspeople and tell them what we want. At this moment, Palestinians are sitting ducks and are being murdered by the thousands. I don't think that the helplessness that I'm sympathetic towards, that I have felt many times in the past few weeks, is really justified for Americans.
Brooke Gladstone: Thank you very much.
Sam Adler-Bell: Thank you, Brooke. Thanks so much for having me.
Brooke Gladstone: Sam Adler-Bell is a writer and co-host of the podcast Know Your Enemy. His article for New York magazine is called War of the Statements: The Unusual Way Americans Have Processed the Israel-Hamas War. Thanks for checking out our midweek podcast. I'm Brooke Gladstone. The big show posts on Friday, usually around supper time. Tune in this week to hear about the legacy of the Me Too movement, six years on.
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