It's because words are such effective tools of communication that we sometimes fail to realize how often we communicate without them. A conversation is sometimes a physical exchange. These conversations carry meaning that can only exist in the physical realm.
We signify to each other with words, with gestures, with emotional expressions. We also signify with commitments, with actions, and when this occurs (as it constantly does in our everyday lives) we are able to see that logical meaning is itself a physical thing. We can't say what we want to say without putting our bodies into it.
For example: my wife and I go to a wedding of a friend of hers who we haven't seen in a while. We both like the bride and groom a lot, and we used to enjoy hanging out with them, but tonight we barely get to talk to the marrying couple because they are so busy running around being the bride and groom. Still, we are glad we came to the wedding, because we are able to express something to the couple by being there. They know that we are there because we want to celebrate their marriage, and this recognition (which might not take place till weeks later when they see their wedding photos) amounts to a happy conversation that could not have been carried out if we were not there. We could have sent a card, and the card could have had many more words on it than we had a chance to speak. But the card would have expressed not more meaning but less than we expressed by being there.
A game of poker provides another example of a form of communication that requires physical investment. This is the most basic rule of poker: your money does the talking. Let's say you're holding a pair of kings before the flop and somebody bets $20 and two others call. You decide that you'd like to take down the pot before the flop with an all-in bet, since you're pretty sure your kings have everyone beat right now, even though they might not hold up at the river. So you go all-in. By shoving your chips you are communicating loudly and clearly.
But you could not possibly have communicated what you just communicated without committing all your chips. It's important to note that, when the others fold (as you hope they will), they are not communicating back. When each player folds, that player is ending their part of the conversation. When they all fold, this conversation is over. The next conversation begins when the next hand is dealt.
So we sometimes communicate our friendship with our bodies, and we sometimes communicate our self-confidence with our money. But here's a darker aspect to the same idea, which occurred to me during the past week as I watched the depressing news from Israel and Palestine. Hamas is firing rockets at Israel from the Gaza Strip, and Israel is firing bigger weapons back. It's a horrible situation all around, and everybody is asking "why can't they just stop?"
The sad answer is, they can't stop because they are in the middle of a conversation that both sides feel compelled to have. By firing rockets at Israel, Hamas is saying "we don't accept Israel's right to exist, and we refuse to back down even though we lack enough military strength to defeat them in open battle." Once we look closely at Hamas's actions, it becomes clear that the only possible purpose of their rocket attacks is to make this statement. There is no strategic purpose; they are simply gesturing. Just as a poker player can't say "I have a monster hand here, you better all fold" without backing it up with a bet, Hamas believe that they can't say "we don't accept Israel's right to exist" without backing it up with armed attacks.
Of course, Israel is also using weapons as communication when it returns the attacks with much greater force. There's been a whole lot of communication going on between Hamas and Israel in the past few days.
But here's the terrible irony of the situation: Israel and Hamas refuse to talk to each other. Hamas won't talk to Israel because doing so would seem to amount to a recognition of Israel's right to exist. Israel won't talk to Hamas because it won't negotiate with terrorists. So both countries are pretending not to talk to each other. All the while, they're communicating back and forth with weapons that have no purpose other than signification.
I recently had a long argument with a few friends about whether or not Israel should agree to begin peace talks with Hamas. These pro-Israeli friends of mine seem to believe that that Israel can achieve something greater by refusing to talk with Hamas, though I can't imagine how they think this strategy can possibly succeed.
I have other friends who generally advocate the pro-Palestinian side, and similarly believe that Hamas should not agree to peace talks. It's also impossible for me to understand how they think this strategy will succeed.
I think we're all asking the wrong questions. Both Israel and Hamas are pretending to refuse to talk to each other, while in fact they're communicating in the worst possible way. Maybe it will help to acknowledge that what needs to be expressed simply needs to be expressed. If the words can't be found, the physical actions will carry the meaning instead. Our challenge is to find the words.
This is why I will always advocate for peace talks between any enemies, no matter how much bitter hatred exists between them. This conversation is already taking place, because war is a form of language. If we refuse to allow the necessary communications to be expressed in words, they will be expressed with weapons.
We should never doubt that peace talks can be crucially important, even when they appear likely to be hopeless. It doesn't matter if we have no hope; we need to have the peace talks anyway. Like a poker player who decides to fold a hand, what we need is not the beginning of a good conversation. What we desparately need is the end of a bad conversation that has already been going on way too long.