October 27, 2023

Alongside the terrible war that started on 7 October, a virulent war of words is now erupting across the globe. And it seems that in both cases, many participants are not observing ethical rules of engagement. This week, for instance, Israeli officials demanded the resignation of UN Secretary-General António Guterres after he said in a speech that the 7 October attack “did not happen in a vacuum”. The Israel ambassador to the UN, Gilad Erdan, has responded by accusing Guterres of expressing “understanding for terrorism and murder” and “compassion for the most terrible atrocities committed against the citizens of Israel”. He has also described the Secretary-General as “blaming the victim” in a way that amounts to a “blood libel”.

UK politicians have since added their disapproval. Rishi Sunak said that “there’s one person responsible for what happened and that’s Hamas”. Oliver Dowden added: “there can be absolutely no blaming of anyone for this terrorist attack other than those terrorists in Gaza”. The only problem is that it is unclear who they are arguing with — for Guterres seems to agree with them. In the very same speech, he stressed that he “condemned unequivocally the horrifying and unprecedented 7 October acts of terror by Hamas in Israel”. He also said that “nothing can justify the deliberate killing, injuring and kidnapping of civilians”; and that “the grievances of the Palestinian people cannot justify the appalling attacks by Hamas”.

What does seem clear from the content of Guterres’ speech is that he believes that both Israel and Hamas are currently engaged in human rights violations; and that Israel has committed such violations in the past. These are negative moral evaluations to which Israel was bound to react strongly. But  — leaving aside whether Guterres is right or wrong about Israel’s actions — strictly speaking, his condemnations do not imply that Israel is morally responsible for Hamas’s acts of shocking brutality. To recognise that two sides are both at fault does not justify what either of them do to each other; and positing historical causes is not the same as distributing blame.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that the charitable interpretation of opponents’ words is one of the first things to go in a war. But still, the phenomenon is striking. And a similar dynamic is currently playing out all over the internet. Everywhere you look, hidden meanings are being assigned to others with absolute certainty — despite the fact that their actual word choices say nothing of the kind

If you describe the plight of Palestinians empathically, you are probably a terrorist supporter. If you express horror at images of Israeli and Jewish agony — but not of Palestinian pain in the very same breath — then you are clearly prepared to cheer on whatever is now happening to civilians in Gaza. If, instead, you attempt to say something empathic about devastating suffering on both sides, then that’s not good enough either — for now you are a milquetoast apologist for the war crimes of whichever side your hearers object to the most.

Banal facts about the practicalities of much public speech — for instance, that word counts are often unavoidably limited, or that a single expression of blame or sympathy can’t possibly represent the entirety of one’s thinking or feeling on a matter — tend to be ignored in the emotional rush to shove a speaker or author into one hostile camp or other. In the face of such a widespread lack of interpretative charity, you would be forgiven for concluding that the best policy would be to say nothing publicly about the conflict at all; there is little likelihood of making any positive difference, and a high chance that you will only add pointlessly to the noise. A wise plan, perhaps, were it not for the fact that, according to many, your silence now makes you a moral coward.

Of course, there are those who make their meaning perfectly clear. Take activist and former UK ambassador Craig Murray, who last week tweeted that, though he had always “viscerally opposed war”, “in the coming Gaza genocide, every act of armed resistance by Hamas and Hezbollah will have my support”. He went on: “what do you expect the Palestinians to do when the Israelis sweep in to kill tens of thousands and drive millions into the Sinai desert. Sing kumbaya to them?” Here Murray is not just drawing a causal link between past actions of Israel and current Hamas aggression, as a historian trying to understand the background political situation might do — and perhaps as Guterres was trying to do too. He is unambiguously alleging that the former morally justifies the latter, effectively signing a blank cheque for whatever savagery is carried out in the name of Palestine next.

Meanwhile, there are also plenty on the pro-Israel side prepared to declare in public that whatever Israel does in response is fully morally justified, with little apparent concern for the detail of what is occurring on the ground. But in between these two absolutist stances, there are lots of others responding to the conflict who are not saying or thinking either of these things, yet who are being interpreted by others as doing so.

Admittedly, some attributions of sinister meaning do seem apt. The Artists for Palestine UK letter, which was circulated last week, heavily focuses on Israeli infractions, while assiduously avoiding specific mention of the horrific murders, rapes, and kidnapping of Israeli civilians. As such, it appeared to be a prime example of what philosopher of language Paul Grice called “conversational implicature”: that is, intentionally implying some meaning not literally present in one’s choice of words (namely, that Israel is the only morally relevant aggressor). In this case though, unlike other superficially similar ones, there were some features which made the attribution of implied meaning look more plausible.

Most obviously, the authors of the letter had plenty of time and a relatively unlimited word count at their disposal when they wrote it. They might very easily have condemned the actions of Hamas and expressed sympathy for Israeli victims in addition to making their other points, but they did not. Instead, they talked vaguely only of “condemning every act of violence against civilians and every infringement of international law whoever perpetrates them” before swiftly moving on.

Equally, and as a recent counter letter from Israel-based progressives and peace activists has pointed out, the artists’ letter uses the language of human rights and yet apparently fails to extend the logic to Jewish people in particular. Since we generally expect people to take positions consistent with their background political commitments, where there is ample opportunity for a set of authors to manifest those commitments in a particular case yet fail to do so, it looks like something important is implied by the omission. All the more so where the authors also know they will be expected by readers to say what is being avoided.

Even here, though, it is worth bearing in mind that one’s interpretation might — just might — be wrong. (I don’t think it is in this case, but still.) Working out what is being implied but not directly stated is not like deducing the answer to a problem in arithmetic. As an interpreter of others’ pronouncements, you make assumptions which are always defeasible: for instance, that the speaker uses particular concepts as you do, that she has access to the same basic facts that you do, and that she actually has, at least roughly, the communicative goals that you attribute to her. This may not always prove to be the case, on further inspection.

Grice himself thought that working out what someone means to say is partly a matter of working out what purpose she is trying to achieve in speaking. His paradigm example was an ordinary conversation between two people in which the goal is the exchange of information. The speaker tries to get the hearer to believe something that she, the speaker, also believes. If information exchange is indeed a particular speaker’s goal, Grice thought, you can usually also assume that she will try to be truthful, relevant, economical with unnecessary detail, and clear in her expression — even if she fails in the attempt.

If she then omits something that you expected her to say — for instance, that Hamas’s treatment of Israeli civilians in the past few weeks is a disgusting breach of their human rights — perhaps the most straightforward explanation is that she doesn’t believe it herself, and so doesn’t intend to get you to believe it either. But it might also be because she thinks you already believe this, so that it would be uneconomical and perhaps even irrelevant to tell you again. The latter explanation looks unlikely in the case of the artists’ letter, but is not completely out of the question.

On social media, the necessarily truncated format — and moreover one that is often divorced from relevant context about the speaker or author — means that attributing unspoken implicatures to others is highly fraught. But to some extent, the same applies to public speech more generally. It’s why, despite their popularity amongst vengeful types, most complaints of “dog whistling” tend to fall flat: nobody can work out how to distinguish “covertly signalling your political commitments to your tribe in a way that only they will recognise” from merely accidentally saying the sorts of things which make it look as if you are. So much depends on background context about the speaker, to which hearers don’t usually have deep access.

Ideally then, if interpretative accuracy were really the goal, most public speech would be interpreted cautiously. Perhaps though, it will be riposted that this precisely should not be the goal, now that a war is on. Maybe the more morally urgent task is to stigmatise certain dangerous viewpoints, and also to be seen to do so, so that the habit spreads — whether the speaker currently being shamed or upbraided actually holds those viewpoints or not.h

Indeed, this seems to be Israel’s attitude, at least sometimes. Last week, the “State of Israel” Instagram account singled out model and actress Gigi Hadid for having shared a post saying “There is nothing Jewish about the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians. Condemning the Israeli government is not antisemitic and supporting Palestinians is not supporting Hamas.” In response, the Israel posted: “@gigihadid Have you been sleeping the past week? Or are you just fine turning a blind eye to Jewish babies being butchered in their homes? Your silence has been very clear about where you stand. We see you.” In tweeting in this way, the account delivered a strong rhetorical message to millions of onlookers, highly economically, and irrespective of whether Hadid is actually indifferent to the murders of Jewish babies or not. (I suspect she probably isn’t, though what do I know).

In any case, I am not so sure that the defence really works. Grice’s crucial insight was that interpreting another person’s speech or writing is just a sub-category of interpreting the actions of other people more generally. Working out what someone is trying to say is a form of working out what she is trying to do — to do, that is, with her words. In the realm of action, sometimes what initially looks like cold-blooded, indefensible murder is just what it seems to be. But sometimes it is really something else — and it’s important that we try to tell the difference. Equally, sometimes what initially looks like a case of justifying a cold-blooded, indefensible murder — or a case of blaming the victims for what happened to them — is really something else as well. Here, too, I still think it’s important for us to try to tell the difference.