On reading too much into words

First let it be noted that nothing I say here will have any effect on hostilities in the so-called Holy Land or anywhere else. I have no need here to take any particular line; no reader should assume that I do or do not elsewhere follow any particular line.

I do wish to promote clear thought. I should like to think that my friends and colleagues have a similar wish, especially when they are academics like me.  Of course, what counts as clear thought may vary. I am a mathematician, professionally; I work in the mathematics department of a university. Certain modes of thought are therefore habitual with me; they may not be habitual in other departments, not to mention other walks of life. I may adopt my modes of thought at the expense of others.

I feel compelled to say such things, having been shocked to find that what I say here may be at all controversial.

The following image was shared by a friend on Facebook (and it is because of the inadequacy of Facebook that I turn to the present medium):

BBC article with text highlighted, and other text added, pointing out that Israelis are "killed", while Palestinians have "died"

Additional text accompanied the image; presumably it was supplied by “europeans against the politicial system”, to whom the image was attributed (as it came to me):

The BBC’s pathetic and disgraceful bias continues. Israelis are being “killed”, while Palestinians “die” for some unknown reason. Israel only “killed” a Hamas chief.

The BBC may well be biassed. It presumably is biassed, like any of us. There are degrees of bias. A news medium may actively seek to promote a cause, as Fox News is accused of doing; or the medium may seek only to present the news as it sees the news, although how it does this depends on its own prejudices.

In any case, it is absurd to draw any conclusion of bias from the use of the English words “killed” and “died” in one sentence of a news story. To my mind, the absurdity was confirmed by a web search, through which I found the story presented in the following image:

BBC article: Palestinians "killed", Israelis "died"

The relevant text here reads as follows; the emphases are supplied by me:

Eighteen Palestinians have been killed in Israeli operations against militants in Gaza since Wednesday afternoon, when an Israeli air strike killed the military leader of Hamas, the militant group that controls the territory, in his car in Gaza City.

Three Israelis have died during a barrage of hundreds of missiles fired from Gaza, mostly into southern Israel, some of which have been intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system.

One might say here, and I suppose there are people who would say,

The BBC’s pathetic and disgraceful anti-Israel bias continues. Palestinians are being “killed”, while Israelis “die” for some unknown reason.

This conclusion would be as absurd as the earlier complementary one.

It seems a bit ridiculous to belabor this point, but the ease with which the original image from “europeans against the political system” has been spread through Facebook disturbs me. In fact I inadvertantly or negligently assisted in this spreading. I shared the image, but included text that was intended to refute the claims embedded in the image. In my own added text, I included a link to the other BBC story above. Nonetheless, some friends took the image from me and shared it without the refutation.

I once foolishly engaged in a long email debate concerning the morality of Noam Chomsky. My interlocutor was exercised by Distortions at Fourth Hand, the article by Chomsky and Herman appearing in The Nation, June 6, 1977.

The theme of that article is that stories are easily spread through the news media if they agree with the prevalent bias, even though those stories may not hold up under scrutiny. In the case considered in the article, stories about the supposed atrocities of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia were spread without having any sound factual basis. In time, the Khmer Rouge would be guilty of atrocious crimes on a vast scale. A sound factual basis would appear. Had Chomsky and Herman had been wrong to object to its absence in the news stories they considered?

The sharing through Facebook of the image from “europeans against the political system” illustrates the theme of Chomsky and Herman. The image accuses the BBC of bias; but I think it is a complementary bias—the bias that the BBC, and western media in general, are biassed—that has caused the image to be freely spread.

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