A way with words

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At the beginning of the World Week for Peace in Palestine Israel, Steve Tomkins considers how we can talk about conflict without making things worse

The deeper a conflict goes, the harder it becomes to say anything about it at all that does not make things a little worse, inflaming anger or hurt, or at least making someone bristle.

I could try for example to talk about my visit to a checkpoint at a crossing in the wall built by the Israeli government along the West Bank in Israel-Palestine. But immediately I’m faced with the problem of what to call that wall.

If I simply mentioned the "security fence" it would set off alarm bells with some readers that I am pro-Israel and choose to ignore the oppression of Palestinian people for the sake of my politics. If I talked about the "apartheid wall" it would set off alarm bells with other readers that I am pro-Palestine and mask naked anti-semitism with my politics.

Even choosing the most neutral term available, the "West Bank barrier", might annoy: I'm refusing to take sides, denying the self-evident truth that one side in the conflict is clearly the aggressor and the other the victim.

Hearing one another

What hope can there possibly be in situations where even talking about it makes things worse? The answer is: Hope lies in better talking.

We can talk about our conflicts in ways which nail our colours to the mast, express our indignation and make us feel righteous. And we can also talk about our conflicts in ways which involve sharing stories, hearing each other, and growing in understanding of how the other feels.

When I was at that border crossing, I saw people on either side of the wall frightened and resentful, rightly or wrongly, of what was on the other side. Maybe if they had better opportunities to hear each other's stories and experiences, they could come closer to peace.

The walls that keep me frightened and resentful of other people are so much easier to get over, but I still find it a huge challenge.

When I do manage it, it always seems to happen through sharing stories, hearing each other, and growing in understanding of how the other feels.

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