Read What They Mean

 maherWhen saying what you mean is superseded by what people think you mean.

“We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.”

These are the words that many thought would have ended Bill Maher’s career, six days after 9/11. If you were to tweet or Facebook these words as your own today, you wouldn’t be met with quite the fervor, but would still induce cringes from whatever audience it is that you have. “We are cowards, the terrorists are not”. This pisses people off. The reason it pisses people off is because we are the good guys. If we are the cowards, than the terrorists are the good guys. Well, that is, unless you are smart enough to understand what words mean.

I googled the word “coward”. This is the definition I received: a person who lacks the courage to do or endure dangerous or unpleasant things. Flying a plane into a fiery death is dangerous (and though I have no personal experience, I also imagine it is unpleasant). “Lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away” does not seem to be dangerous or unpleasant (to the specific missile launcher). This is what Bill Maher said. What was perceived is “American citizens are cowards, people that kill us are heroes.” For us, “cowards” are traditionally seen as the bad character. It doesn’t matter that Maher was explaining that you can’t label the 9/11 terrorists as cowards because that’s exactly the opposite of their definition; his right definition was in contrast of our perceptions. His was fired for this. He returned not too long afterwards as the host of the long-running Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO. The public forgot. Until now.

I know very little about the politics of the Middle East. I delved into it briefly a few years ago. I read into the history of the Middle East’s formation and tried to understand in a post-9/11 world what was going on in this land of trouble. I gave up. The truth is, I just don’t care. There are a lot of fucked up things happening in this world, so I chose to let this one go. I like to problem solve, and I doubt I’m solving the problem in the Middle East any time soon. So when it comes to Israel vs Hamas, I’m about as clueless as your grandmother was about Tupac vs Biggie.

However, when Maher tweeted this, I knew exactly what he was saying:


To me, I read that tweet as thus: Hamas is the person you’re not supposed to get violent with, but if the violence you’re receiving gets to a certain point, you have to break some rules. The thinking comes from a belief I and many men hold: never hit a woman. Though, if the woman you’re with comes at you with a knife, all of a sudden that “no hitting” policy goes out the door. This was Maher’s analogy, which is so obvious that I’m dumbfounded by the fact that I am seemingly the only person in the world who got it. Maher could be totally wrong about the relationship and power hierarchy between Israel and Hamas – I seriously have no idea. It doesn’t matter though, because I wasn’t trying to read into Maher’s words and I wasn’t triggered by anything he said. I just read them, pictured the scene he was trying to portray, and understood the point he was trying to make. It wasn’t hard.

This tweet has now become Maher’s “Cowards, 2.0”. Feminist ringleaders Jezebel were all over it. So much in fact, that it garnered bigger font than every other headline from the night:


Now, like many aggregators, Jezebel’s headline font size might be dictated by page views and/or comments. Though, that too says a lot, as corporation discrimination, the NSA or even Grumpy Cat (!) were not able to get a response from gender activists like the words of a comedian. Bill Maher is famous and Bill Maher is hated and this happened on Twitter. Add in some triggers like the image of a woman being slapped (even though it was in the context of said woman trying to kill somebody) and you got yourself a good old fashioned rally cry.

But here’s a thought: read the words next time. Not what you think the words mean or how those words put together make you feel, but what those particular words actually mean. If you still disagree with Maher, it better be because of Middle Eastern political ideology, not because of your own literary sensitivity.

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