< Protestors or Rebels: How the Label Changes Our Perception of Libya


Friday, March 04, 2011

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Two weeks ago, the world watched as peaceful protestors in Libya came out in defiance of a regime notorious for its brutal suppression of any voices of dissent.


FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: It was anything but safe for anti-Qaddafi protestors who had called for a Friday of liberation.

MALE CORRESPONDENT: Qaddafi’s forces fired on protestors in Tripoli as they emerged from mosques holding Friday morning…

FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Every town in Eastern Libya was filled with protestors today, people hoping that momentum is on their side and that Qaddafi will be gone in days, if not hours.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But something changed. Suddenly the media dropped the phrase “protestor” and started talking about “rebels” instead.


MALE CORRESPONDENT: In Benghazi, international news cameras were brought to see rebel fighters training civilian volunteers.

MALE CORRESPONDENT: Attacks continued to escalate between government forces and rebels on several fronts this morning…

MALE CORRESPONDENT: - East side and the west side of Tripoli they were in rebel control. The rebels held on, but the rebels didn't gain any ground, either.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: The shift in rhetoric may have been subtle to some, but for others it was a jarring change. “Rebels” said many in the Twittersphere was a pejorative. It was a word that separated the outside world from the struggle for democracy. Foreign Policy Managing Editor Blake Hounshell doesn't see why people should find the word problematic.

BLAKE HOUNSHELL: I don't find it a negative term at all. There is a certain romanticism, actually, that I think a lot of us have about rebels. A lot of people still like to root for the underdog, and certainly the overwhelming majority of Americans are cheering on the anti-Qaddafi folks in Libya. There’s not a lot of love for the Qaddafi side. In my own thinking, just as I was writing sentences myself, I had to think about, at different points in the narrative, when do you call someone a protestor, when do you call someone a rebel, when do you call someone anti-Qaddafi forces or pro-Qaddafi forces? As a journalist, I think it’s a lot more precise and accurate term to use. You can't really call someone with an RPG a protestor anymore. At, at that point they really then become a rebel.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So was it at that point at which the world’s media decided pretty much together to switch from “protestor” to “rebel?”

SUSAN CHIRA: These things often happen almost before you fully realize it, and then you realize it; you begin thinking that word doesn't sound right.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: New York Times Foreign Editor Susan Chira talks about making the switch.

SUSAN CHIRA: I – I couldn't, frankly, pinpoint the moment, but it became clearer and clearer that we were not talking about Egypt- or Tunisia-style large demonstrations but something that had become a military conflict.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: She says there are likely to be more semantic shifts in the future, to keep pace with the evolving situation in Libya.

SUSAN CHIRA: We also had a discussion about whether to use the word “civil war,” and we began introducing that terminology, in effect, for some of the same reasons. We've stepped a step closer to “civil war.” I guess we haven't called it a full-out civil war 'cause we're trying to be cautious. I mean, you have actual ground clashes between rebels from the east and Qaddafi loyalists. You have airstrikes. You have loyalist troops on the ground fighting rebel troops on the ground. So that comes a lot closer to the edge of what you could call civil war. I guess we've hesitated to say “full-fledged civil war” because it has been relatively contained clashes in certain areas.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you do see the potential for the semantic tide turning towards civil war.

SUSAN CHIRA: Absolutely, I do. We're watching it. I think it’s very close.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: What would tip you over?

SUSAN CHIRA: [LAUGHS] When I would feel comfortable saying they're in absolute civil war is if we have several running days of extended clashes, ground fighting, extended bombing runs, which have been difficult to completely verify. But I think we're very close to that.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And the challenge to choosing the right terminology is not limited to the fast-changing situation on the ground in Libya, but the evolving nature of what is meant by “civil war.”

SUSAN CHIRA: This is a very unusual conflict. I mean, I think “civil war” is one of those fascinating phrases, because in Iraq we eventually decided that it could and should be labeled a civil war, even though you didn't really have two armies. You, you essentially had sectarian conflicts fueling mass killing of civilians. It wasn't just combatants. So -


SUSAN CHIRA: - “civil war” is a term that has evolved in how it’s used, and I think that definition remains an evolving one.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, what's interesting is, is that “civil war” is also a freighted term. I know the Bush administration did not want it applied to Iraq -

SUSAN CHIRA: No, they didn't.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: - be - because it would suggest that there isn't any role for foreign governments there. And if that happens in Libya, will that give people leave to walk away from this conflict and not to engage? Does it give foreign powers -


BROOKE GLADSTONE: - who are now looking to help a reason to walk away?

SUSAN CHIRA: We can't be guided by what might happen if we use the term. I am a journalist, and what I do is describe what we see, as accurately and precisely as possible. I'm not going to not use a phrase because I think it might influence policy one way or the other.


SUSAN CHIRA: Let's just be accurate and then, you know, we'll see where the policymakers go.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But words do frame things.

SUSAN CHIRA: Absolutely.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And “civil war” is a frame.

SUSAN CHIRA: Right. Well, that’s why we're trying to be careful and cautious. I mean, it’s also an uprising. I think that’s the word we've used and will continue to use.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Susan Chira is the Foreign Editor of The New York Times. Several people have told me that the moment they hear the word “rebel” they begin to disconnect. The effect is compounded when combined with the phrase “civil war.” Whether or not people like us on the other side of the world choose to engage or even follow the story is a decision each of us makes every day. We think we make those choices consciously, weighing the expense and time and mental energy with what we stand to gain. But often we decide without deciding. What we choose can hinge on the unrecognized power of a single world.