[This post is the first installment of what I hope will become a regular feature. I’ll pick a specific issue that presents journalists with descriptive problems and discuss (ideally with others) the most ethical way for them to articulate it. The idea will be to address usage questions that are too specific or too sensitive for media style guides to address, or for which the style guides offer unsatisfactory prescriptions. I’m going to call it “The Usage Panel,” partly to bolster my hope that in the future there will be more than one panelist, but mostly because I would like for it to be an ethics- and accuracy-focused media analog to the practical usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. Suggestions for future Usage Panel topics are welcome!]

During the March upsurge in violence in and around Basra, a lot of the print publications that I see regularly used “Shiite-on-Shiite” as an adjective to describe the fighting and to distinguish it from the violence between Shiite and Sunni factions that has been more characteristic of the civil war in Iraq. It struck me as an appropriate topic for the first Usage Panel because it was so pervasive and raised some questions about how to describe ethnic and religious violence.

The expression recalls “black-on-black,” an adjective that appeared regularly in 1980’s reports of violence in South Africa that was not between black anti-Apartheid and white pro-Apartheid forces. The phrase still appears in U.S. newspapers, but almost always to describe either violence in urban black neighborhoods in the U.S. or discrimination against black Americans perpetrated by black Americans. (The expression “black-on-black violence” is specifically proscribed by the Guardian Style Guide, but not addressed by the NYT or AP stylebooks or by the Chicago Manual of Style).

Like the earlier usage of “black-on-black,” “Shiite-on-Shiite” is used to point out a way in which the violence being described defies the audience’s expectations. In South Africa in the 1980s, we expected violence to be racially motivated, and in Iraq now we expect violence that does not involve foreign forces to be between Shiite and Sunni groups.

I think that my primary hesitation about both expressions is that they present an uncomplicated understanding of the state of being “Shiite” or “black.” To use “Shiite-on-Shiite” as the primary descriptor of a violent incident suggests that it is, above other notable features of the incident, surprising that someone who identifies as Shiite would hurt someone else who identifies as Shiite. There’s a suggestion of “unnatural,” almost incestuous, betrayal in the construction. “Shiite-on-Shiite” and “black-on-black” encourage an inaccurate lumping of many, many individuals, political parties, ethnic groups, organizations and motivations into monolithic groups.

I fully accept that it was important—perhaps of primary importance—in all of the stories where I noticed the usage to explain that the violence occurring was between opposing Shiite groups. But the expression “Shiite-on-Shiite violence” evokes a simplistic understanding of “Shiiteness” that seems even less nuanced than “violence between opposing Shiite factions” or a similar description.

I’m sure that some of my discomfort with these phrases derives from their employment of “black” and “Shiite” as nouns rather than as the adjectives I think they should be. I have never liked the usage “10 blacks” or “three Shiites” or “a group of Christians,” (as opposed to “black people,” etc.) because it reduces people to one classifying adjective instead of using the adjective to indicate one salient element of peoples’ humanity.

But there is also something unique to the construction “x-on-x” that estranges the audience from the “x”-es. The fact that the expression evokes a colloquial and objectifying description of sexual activities might be relevant. I think it’s significant that such adjectival phrases are often used to describe pornographic representations of sex.

Of course all media descriptions—and certainly all one-phrase adjectives—inevitably reduce and simplify realities. But describing the violence in Basra as “Shiite-on-Shiite” inaccurately and unnecessarily endowed the violence, and its perpetrators and victims, with a nonexistent simplicity.

Or that’s what I think right now. Thoughts?

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