As a builder, the word “foundation” means something very specific to me. It’s what underlies the structure of a home, generally made of poured concrete with steel reinforcing bars running horizontally and continuously through and around the perimeter. It’s depth and width is engineered to carry specific loads and stresses, and the concrete is engineered to a specific pounds per square inch. It doesn’t have to be pretty or finely finished, though it could be, and it’s generally never seen once poured, set and covered. If done well, most folks never give it a thought. Never. The color of a paper thin covering of paint on a bathroom wall might be something to fret and stew over; the fabric of cloth covering a window; all transient and subject to the whims of taste and fashion are considered in endless streams of catalogues and showrooms and discussions. Their significance relative to the actual construction of a house? None.
And when I use this word in conversation, or see it written, or hear it used, what comes to mind is that understanding, the tactile feel of rough concrete and raw steel hidden under and supporting a building.
“A cream or powder used as a base to even out facial skin tone before applying other cosmetics.”
“…an underlying basis or principle for something: specific learning skills as a foundation for other subjects.
“the action of establishing an institution or organization on a permanent basis, esp. with an endowment.
• an institution established with an endowment, for example a college or a body devoted to financing research or charity.”
It seems a simple word with clear, concrete certainty, yet the flavor drawn from the word in conversation varies considerably depending on one person’s experience.
As I say “foundation” in conversation with someone more conversant in cosmetics, images unbidden rise and ebb in his mind of flesh tones and blemishes. Or with a person deeply involved with grants and fundraising the word transforms to documents to fill out, people to meet and greet, dollars to raise and endow. Or a teacher might underpin her understanding with basic math skills or reading ability.
And none of that will surface in the give and take of conversation or the thrust and parry of debate and discussion, but under it all is the personal understanding of a word.
When such a word is so likely to be weighted with meanings hidden and obscure, how much more fraught are words weighted with the freight of anger, fear, or judgment or vitriol?
Common words like Democrat or Republican or conservative or liberal or almost any word with an –ism attached…communism, socialism, racism, feminism.
I find when I write these words, my own load of attachments sticks to my attempts at clarity and understanding and it is no easy task in trying to unload the cargo.
Patriotism is one of those words too. As is justice. War. Peace.
Those words can get your motor running and car in gear before you even have a destination chosen.
Which really limits genuine discussion.
Because besides getting your motor running and your car in gear, they also have a tendency to shut down hearing and understanding and resurrect old tracts of talking heads and radio show propaganda.
But we have to talk.
We have to try to understand despite the ease with which words are misunderstood whether intentionally or not. As a mediator for almost 20 years, I saw firsthand how words can be manipulated to further hidden agendas, and my role there was to help those in conflict uncover those agendas and clarify meanings, defuse explosive words worn smooth of any meaning other than hate.
Some of these musing arose because my son sent me a link to an article “How to Talk to Terrorists” by Jonathan Powell. It’s well worth the read.
Powell was the chief negotiator for Great Britain with the Irish Republic Army in an intractable conflict that had been killing and maiming soldiers and civilians for almost 80 years when he came on board. And an unlikely mediator was he, coming from a military family where his father had taken an IRA bullet in 1940 and his brother was on the IRA death list for 8 years. But he learned some things along the way.
He writes: “When it comes to terrorism, governments seem to suffer from a collective amnesia. All of our historical experience tells us that there can be no purely military solution to a political problem, and yet every time we confront a new terrorist group, we begin by insisting we will never talk to them. As Dick Cheney put it, “we don’t negotiate with evil; we defeat it”. In fact, history suggests we don’t usually defeat them and we nearly always end up talking to them. Hugh Gaitskell, the former Labour leader, captured it best when he said: “All terrorists, at the invitation of the government, end up with drinks in the Dorchester.””
I think of these considerations as I hear radio rants and high-minded columnists fulminate about ISIS and general chaos in the Mideast, about how we (the US) just need to “nuke them back to the stone age.”
Not helpful at all, other than to stir the bile in the belly of those who have no real knowledge of how to resolve conflicts but simply want to shoot off their guns in some desperate attempt to show who’s the biggest gorilla in the room.
Powell further writes: “Above all, what these experiences demonstrate is that there isn’t really an alternative to talking to the terrorists if you want the conflict to end. Hugh Orde, the former chief constable in Northern Ireland, rightly says, “There is no example that I know of, of terrorism being policed out” – or fully defeated by physical force – anywhere in the world. [US General David] Petraeus said that it was clear in Iraq that “we would not be able to kill or capture our way out of the industrial-strength insurgency that was tearing apart the very fabric of Iraqi society”. If you can’t kill them all, then sooner or later you come back to the same point, and it is a question of when, not whether, you talk. If there is a political cause then there has to be a political solution.”
I do think that would lay the foundation for the promise of peace.