Phoebe Maltz Bovy is a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail.
Ever since war broke out in Israel and Gaza, there has been – alongside horrific news and eyewitness accounts – a newly ubiquitous form of communication: statements. Suddenly, every institution, every politician, and every third cousin twice removed has issued a statement about the crisis. Gigi Hadid, a half-Palestinian U.S. supermodel, has issued one. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator and former U.S. presidential candidate, who is Jewish, has as well. So have Canadian universities and unions.
It’s not new for schools, brands, and the like to respond to tragedies with generic situation-acknowledging letters. (They’re faulted if they don’t.) And the phenomenon of ordinary individuals imagining (sometimes correctly) that they’re being held up to the standard of politicians, and expected to opine on even things they neither know nor previously cared about, lest their silence be deafening, this too predates the current violence. There’s always this rush of people trying to say the right thing, strike the right tone, and hoping to have correctly read the room, which can be challenging when the “room” is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet statements are having a moment.
For a while, the dominant mode of solemn communication was the open letter. There was “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” a.k.a. the Harper’s letter, a July, 2020 plea for liberalism and free expression. (I was asked to sign, and did.) In February, 2023, The New York Times letter, from contributors and subscribers, protested the paper’s coverage of transgender issues.
I guess now we’re doing statements, or maybe that’s our new name for open letters, except statements are a bit more like press releases and tied to the news cycle, rather than exhortations about long-term trends or abstract principles. Like open letters, statements have a self-importance about them, with formatting (letterhead helps) connoting these are documents to be reckoned with. Social media posts may be silly, but so-and-so issued a statement has gravitas.
All statements these days make their way to social media, but not all posts are statements. To issue a statement is different from reacting, viscerally and emotionally, to reports about unfathomable atrocities. Nor is it the same as posting your political interpretation of events. No, statement-issuing is its own, more controlled form of communication. Whatever the ideological stance, the statement format suggests reflection and a consensus process of some kind. A post is just a post; a statement is an official position, at least until it’s qualified or retracted 10 minutes later.
Once statements become a thing, they proliferate, because if everyone’s doing one, the absence of one is understood to speak volumes. Or so people fear, so to be on the safe side, they deliberate, or delegate, coming up with something that probably looks just-so to them, but that won’t please everyone.
Statement-issuing brings up a couple of related issues. The first is that not everyone has a statement-worthy take on world events. Most people aren’t well informed, and most institutions have members with divergent viewpoints. Thus, the many non-statement statements, whose purpose is seemingly to affirm that the issuing entity doesn’t live under a rock. The statements that read as generically good are the ones that say the least, while the ones that take a strong stand end up alienating even some of their own signatories. (It’s almost as if, whatever your overall views on the Middle East, it’s now frowned upon to cheer on Hamas.)
Then there’s the matter of assessing whether everything presenting itself as a statement is newsworthy. When a literature professor issues a statement to his 441 followers, it’s tempting to hone in on the message itself, forgetting that the prof is just one man expressing his opinion. That type of statement is not the same sort of communication as the mayor of a city of millions, or the president of a labour union with hundreds of thousands of members, offering up their official word.
But if you try to follow the news on social media, or indeed via articles using online pronouncements as a source, you get this barrage of statements, some quite abhorrent. And the specifics get murky. Did “Harvard” respond to Hamas’s atrocities with a letter criticizing Israel, or was it “a coalition of Palestine solidarity groups at Harvard”?
It is easier to conduct close readings of page-long documents than to wrap your head around abducted families, raped women, murdered children. Deconstructing a bad take is an intellectual exercise. Looking directly at what’s happening is, for those of us fortunate enough to be able to escape it, too horrible to contemplate.