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Political Comment / Opinion


On the sneaky ways of language

By Malinda Seneviratne
‘What goes without saying, comes without saying’ – Pierre Bourdieu
Assumptions, following Bourdieu, the French Sociologist, and others, do not fall from the sky, but rather are socially produced. Bourdieu, however, is not a determinist in that he subscribes to the view that there is a symbiotic relationship between structure and agency. He speaks, for example, of ‘structuring structures’ as well as ‘structured structures’. In other words structures impact action and human agency can dent and otherwise alter structures. Marx put it in a different way: ‘Men make their history but not in the circumstances of their choice’. What reminded me of the above quote is a careful reading of ‘considered opinion’ in national newspapers. The ‘taken for granted,’ I find does not arrive along pathways innocent of ideological intent.
I distinctly remember Pakaiasothy Saravanamuttu starting a sentence at a seminar 13 years ago, ‘I don’t want to use the F word, but…’ and then going on to tout federalism. Today he doesn’t use such caveats. He didn’t offer a cogent argument for federalism then and hasn’t improved over the years. Today many people talk federalism, again basing arguments on what to my mind is a clear misrepresentation of the problem and being wide-eyes about the repercussions of such a ‘solution’. A weakened state, one observes, does not automatically yield good governance or greater self-determination to the citizen. One also observes that the historical record as per ‘traditional homelands’ is a pretty thin volume and that even if this were not so the notion of ‘exclusivity’ is so untenable that the LTTE prefers to talk about ‘aspiration’ rather than ‘grievance’. Let us take ‘peace’ now. There was a scandalous conflation of terms during the Ranil Wickremesinghe regime, where ‘Ceasefire Agreement’ was granted synonymous status vis a vis ‘peace’. So anyone who pointed out the flaws of the CFA was labeled ‘anti-peace’ or worse, ‘warmonger’. This uncritical application of label is not innocent. Labels that are of the goes-without-saying sort, actually come without saying. It is not that structures throw up labels. In most cases it is not that there’s no author involved but rather the author remains anonymous.
People talk, for example, of the ‘South’. They use terms such as ‘Southern Consensus’. They would say, referring to the SLFP-UNP agreement, ‘the south unites for peace’. What do they mean? What kind of ideological project is going on here?
Is ‘South’ a reference to the Southern Province? Would ‘North’ then refer to that which is north of Vavuniya? Is the Southern Consensus then an agreement reached by those in the Southern Province? Obviously not. When you throw in a picture of Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe you’ve already crossed the Benthara Ganga. Where then lies the demarcation? It implies, geographically at least an island divided into two equal halves. All of a sudden we have a different map, contour wise and legitimacy of demand wise. Not innocent at all!
Of course one can say ‘this is not what was meant’ and make no mistake, that plea is made often enough. It is like saying ‘Nigger’ and saying ‘I didn’t mean it as a derogatory term’. It is like calling a Tamil person ‘Thalaya’ and saying ‘I have the greatest admiration and respect for him/her and his/her language and race’. Language, unfortunately is not innocent but is eminently political. ‘South’ concedes much more, therefore, than what Balasingham and Helgessen have seized by gun and ‘negotiation’.
Why is it that the real demarcation of democratic as opposed to terrorist not used? Out of innocence? Because ‘that was what was meant’? Why is it that a SLFP-UNP tie-up is labelled ‘national’ as in national government when these two parties do not represent all the people or even have a track record or a cogent set of aspirations that has anything to do with ‘nation’?
Take ‘border village’. An assumption is scripted in surreptitiously here, that of a ‘border’. The moment you write in ‘border’, you have two distinct geographies. Half the battle is already won.
There are other examples. To go back to ‘federalism’, the moment you federate, you concede two distinct politico-geographic entities agreeing to come together. What is written in but not said, what comes without saying, is ‘of our own free will’. The reference for future use is as follows: ‘we came of our own free will and therefore have the right to exercise the freedom to go of our own free will’. Forgotten is the fact that the ‘distinct’ written into the script was never substantiated in terms of the ‘traditional homeland’ claim. How about ‘civil war’? The term assumes a conflict in which factions claim to operate rival governments, have complete control over stable territories. The truth is that what is referred to as a de-facto state or state apparatus or capital in news reports is a territory whose acreage is in flux, not to mention that all things considered the only way ‘de-facto’ can be used is to say ‘de-facto cattle shed’ (with no apologies to journalists, political analysts and wide-eyed politicians but with considerable sympathy for associated populations suffering untold depravations).
Let us not be naïve here. Getting the language right is not enough. However, getting the language wrong only serves to obfuscate issues. The danger is that obfuscation can very well be a sharp political tool and an astute political project. The moment one submits uncritically to the designs of terminological politics, one can conclude, one is as culpable as the author(s).
Everyone has an agenda. I, for one, want institutions that make for better governance and that add value to the notion of citizenship. I don’t want ‘nation’ to be co-terminous with ‘market’ and ‘resource’ or citizens to be ‘residencies for labour power’ or ‘targets of exploitation’. I want processes to be informed by history, culture, heritage and other things that widen the scope of meaning. I am fond of the map of Sri Lanka. I am not against a common Sri Lankan identity but I think it is silly to erase all other identities to construct an opapathika Sri Lankan. Indeed, to the extent that there is a driving cultural force in our civilisational history, I firmly believe it is Sinhala and Buddhist. I want other identities and their cultural content to be robust in artifact and articulation. I am not, however, going to be happy if Sinhala Buddhists are allowed only to be ‘Sri Lankans’. Neither does it make any sense for me if that which is ‘Sinhala’ and ‘Buddhist’ is affirmed if all citizens are stripped of democratic and human rights and marginalized from the political process. With regard to the above, I am not ideology-free. These are the parameters of my engagement.
There are those, now, who say ‘I don’t have an agenda’. This is like saying ‘I don’t know where I came from and I don’t know and don’t care where I go.’ Such people don’t have a right to talk about ‘policy’, to comment on, to protest to lament or celebrate decisions in the public and political arena. I am not sure if this is a quote from some expert, but considering such issues, one can say, ‘Beware those who say they have no agenda for they are the first and easiest victims of propaganda and tend to be the most loyal carriers of associated viruses!’
Language, let me repeat, is not innocent. It is eminently political. Words not only articulate, they hide, they erase, they lead you up the garden path, they turn lie into truth and vice versa. Words should not be taken lightly. Writers are not innocent or neutral. They come without saying and by the time they go, without saying or with your leave, they can very well have left things worse than they found. It wouldn’t be imprudent therefore to demand that those who come announce their arrival and to resolve to be critical of things that ‘go without saying’.