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The Language of Conflict

Digital technology and social media are increasing the scope for conflict and political mischief by bringing together large numbers of people from different cultural and political backgrounds. For many, the same word may have a different emotional or political valence, and the same sequence of words may be interpreted in contradictory ways.

NEW DELHI – I was having lunch in an Ithaca restaurant with my mother-in-law, who was visiting from India, when the Chinese waitress serving us asked her where she came from. “Kolhapur,” my mother-in-law replied, referring to the small town in Maharashtra where she was born. Much to my surprise, the waitress looked overjoyed. “I lived there for several years,” she said.

They hit it off. My mother-in-law said that the world’s best ice cream comes from there, and the waitress agreed that she had never had better since she left. After a while, I realized what was happening: my mother-in-law was talking about Kolhapur, and the waitress about Kuala Lumpur. But all their facts matched perfectly, so I decided not to spoil their joy.

Language is a strange thing. It is an enabler of human progress and happiness (including through amusing misunderstandings like the one in Ithaca), but it can also be a source of conflict and an instrument of oppression.

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