News that the word “occupy” has been named 2011’s word of the year by the American Dialect Society is quite interesting … though maybe not that surprising.
As a “verb, noun, and combining form referring to the Occupy protest movement”, the society decided that this was most important “new” word of the year (apparently it doesn’t have to be brand new, just newly prominent and significant).
I’ll go with that. Just. Because the other big one – if we’re talking phrases as well as individual words (which, as a matter of fact, the ADS is) – is surely “Arab Spring”. In fact, in an affiliated vote, the American Name Society did vote that “Arab Spring” was the most important name to emerge from 2011. (By the way, other notable new words from 2011 were “bunga bunga”, “assholocracy” [Most Outrageous category], and “job creator” = 'member of the top one per cent of money makers' [Most Euphemistic category]. Nice. There are some other excellent new words on their list: check it out).
As I’ve said before on this blog, the Occupy movement and the “Arab Spring” protests have an intertwined history. It’s unlikely that the tented occupations of Wall Street and St Paul’s would have taken exactly the form they have had it not been for the concrete inspiration provided by those at Tahrir Square, Bahrain’s Pearl Roundabout and other highly significant Middle East and North African protest sites.
OK, all well and good. Time magazine made “The Protester” its generic “person” of the year for 2011. Last year certainly thrummed with the world-changing significance of the protests right across the Middle East and North Africa (and further afield). But still, how much has actually been achieved? I tried to sum this up in a long post just before Christmas, so I won’t re-run those thoughts here.
Suffice it to say, though, that for all of the momentousness of deposing authoritarian leaders and initiating new, more accountable relations between populations and authority structures in the region, the jury is still very much out on whether we’re entering a new human rights era. Amnesty has today issued a new “taking stock” report and it cautions that “repression and state violence are likely to continue to plague the Middle East and North Africa in 2012”.
Amnesty also looks at the positives – “people power” etc – but I think this sobering, downbeat but surely realistic assessment is one we need to keep in mind. How can you not when, for example, the dead bodies in Syria continue to pile up at such a horrifying pace? The Arab League’s monitoring presence in Syria appears to be having a negligible effect on this and yesterday’s Arab League foreign ministers meeting failed to provide much hope that it is capable of changing things for the better in this blood-spattered country. (Indeed a crop of cartoons from Syrian activists are now satirising what they see as the monitors’ inability to notice death and destruction right under their noses).
Another of the Most Euphemistic phrases to be identified by the American Dialect Society was “regime alteration” = 'an alternative to “regime change” promoted by Obama administration in some Middle Eastern countries.' (Well, the USA has form over dubious/distasteful euphemisms: “enhanced interrogation” = torture, for example).
I mention this because I think it’s also worth bearing in mind that many of the world’s great powers may have their own ideas about how much human rights and democracy in the region, is, so to speak, “the right amount”. Those people still struggling for human rights in Egypt or Syria – or in Bahrain or Libya (or indeed in places like Oman or Saudi Arabia) – can, I fear, expect only lukewarm support from the big-player nations at the UN as we look ahead this year.
These human rights activists are not exactly on their own – there’s a sort of “movement” of like-minded people across the world, and human rights organisations will continue to support them. But they are in a tough fight with only limited help from the sidelines. “Arab Spring” was undoubtedly one of last year’s key phrases. Let’s hope that “human rights counterrevolution” is not one of 2012’s.
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