Between & Beyond: Definitions

We live in an age of definitions. The lives we know are ruled by definitions. When we think of the world outside ourselves, we think in terms of organized definitions, a whole matrix of preordained milestones to help us organize the facts and figures and concerns of the world, as Nietzsche put it, “A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms.” We think of ourselves in terms of definitions, and we call it our identity. Yet, there always seems to be that gray space between definitions. I don’t mean the space between black and white, opposing definitions. I mean the space between the different definitions of the same term in our culture. There are many that come to mind: “terrorism,” “patriotism,” “progressive.” This is how I came to name this column really. That space between highly contested definitions is the doorway to beyond what we know.

The conflict between Israel and Palestine begs the definition of terrorist as Hamas, the democratically elected governing body of Palestine, is being billed as a terrorist organization. Again, I must make the disclaimer that violence is not the answer. I abhor violence in all instances. I don’t think that Hamas should be killing Israelis. But, what is so often forgotten in all instances like this is context. Context sometimes arrives in hindsight, but it is often one of the first things that powers of oppression and control wish to stranglehold. For example, we can better see the context of the Native Americans now that history has offered us safe distance and many brave activists have made their voices heard. But, for the sake of argument, let’s say that a group of radical Native Americans, enraged by the past atrocities done to their people, emboldened by their current abject poverty, and saddened by the twilight of their rich and sacred culture, got together and decided to fire rockets on some major U.S. city. In this day and age of Homeland Security, they would be quickly branded terrorists. The question remains: Is violence ever justified?

The hope from my perspective is that it is never necessary. If I am an individual, and I am essentially equal and no different than all other humans, and we all share the same experience, then they can understand what I have come to understand and we can reach some fundamental truth if we both had the will to arrive there. I was not violently coerced into my understanding of the world. But, we, as Americans, justify violence all the time. We do it daily when we consume animals. We do it when we are told that our lives are threatened, but always we maintain control of the context.

Israel wishes to do the same and the onlookers become entrenched in a battle of definitions. Who is acting in defense? Who is terrorizing? Who is targeting civilians? While there is little doubt that Hamas is wanton in its rocket firing, Israel uses flechette ammunition and white phosphorous. Those weapons are absolutely not designed to neutralize military targets but to end human life. They are essentially, in and of themselves, weapons of collateral damage. That cannot be denied. America has used white phosphorous in Iraq and napalm in Vietnam.

This is why the embattled definition of “progressive” becomes so ironic. In our culture, the word “progressive” has come to mean Democrat. I see a lot of pro-Israel commentary on Reddit claiming that people support Palestine because it is “trendy” and “cool” to do so. Generally, the conservative Right uses the word progressive with a considerable amount of stank on it, usually meaning out of touch and stuck up. The funny thing is that I do think Democrats are out of touch and stuck up, just for totally different reasons. I think it’s insane to call yourself “progressive” and align yourself with a president who has perpetuated the NSA and Guantanamo, and wins a Nobel Peace Prize and then (however many years down the line) signs away 225 million American dollars to further arm Israel after months of endless bloodshed.

What progressive is really supposed to mean is someone who is trying to push us forward, trying to make progress and lift us up out of this cycle of history: the one of violence and retaliation, of superiority and opportunism for some and suffering and enslavement for others, of imperialism and war, of division based on ideology or divinity or just plain hatred. See, a true real progressive and hero of mine (one of the last the Earth has known) was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He’s the one who proved that violence was not necessary. What progressive is really supposed to mean is someone who has lifted him or herself out of the mass hallucination called culture enough to help us redefine. That is what progress is in our world based on language. The process of redefining must become not just possible but welcome as it is necessary and absolutely vital to our survival.

Here is what I mean: “When you call yourself an Indian or a Muslim or a Christian or a European, or anything else, you are being violent. Do you see why it is violent? Because you are separating yourself from the rest of mankind. When you separate yourself by belief, by nationality, by tradition, it breeds violence. So a man who is seeking to understand violence does not belong to any country, to any religion, to any political party or partial system; he is concerned with the total understanding of mankind.” – Jiddu Krishnamurti