May 30, 2004

Just as good for hate

It was the words "in Arabic" that truly shocked me. The source: Jeffrey Goldberg's long article "Among the Settlers" in the May 31 New Yorker (related slide show with audio here). The scene: outside Hadassah House, home to several families of Jewish settlers in Hebron, across the street from the Córdoba School for (Palestinian Arab) girls.

A group of yeshiva students appeared, walking in the direction of the Tomb of the Patriarchs. ... They had the wispy beards of young men who have never shaved.

Two Arab girls, their heads covered by scarves, books clutched to their chests, left the Córdoba School, and were walking toward the yeshiva boys.

"Cunts!" one of the boys yelled, in Arabic.

"Do you let your brothers fuck you?" another one yelled.

Raw, hostile, poisonous, overt, sexually-charged, ethnic hatred. And these young Hebrew-speaking men, isolated by soldiers from virtually all contact with Arabs, had taken the trouble to learn enough Arabic to be able to howl their filth in their victims' native language.

So many people talk about the need to speak a common language so that we can all get along — the dream of Esperanto. Never think that sharing a language is either a necessary or a sufficient condition for being able to empathize with other human beings or to treat them with humanity. The key difference between human language and, say, the hyperspecialized dance "language" of honey bees is that a human language can be used for propositional communications of any sort. They are infinitely adaptable. They are just as good for expressing hate as for anything else.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 30, 2004 07:05 PM