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(S)word play


We live in strange times. Things are no longer what they seem, words no longer mean the same. Years ago I remember feeling shocked and affronted when right-wing women in India began to spout the slogans of the women’s movement. At first my fellow activists laughed in amazement. But very quickly they discovered there was nothing to laugh about: words that had symbolized their aspirations, words that marked what women’s struggles the world over had stood for, suddenly acquired sinister overtones. To be ‘empowered’ now meant to be able to kill and maim; to be ‘secular’ meant to be against the interests of the nation. Being Hindu meant being a patriot, being Muslim meant being a terrorist. If you called yourself a supporter of human rights, it meant you were anti-state; if you called yourself a ‘feminist’, it meant you had ‘Western’ ideas and were therefore ‘alienated’ and ‘rootless’.

I’ve often wondered about the process whereby words are twisted to mean something quite other than what they are meant to. How do we end up perverting language, bending it into unrecognizable new shapes? In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq (euphemistically called ‘war’) Tony Blair and George W Bush repeatedly spoke on behalf of what they called the ‘international community’. Strictly speaking they weren’t wrong. The Concise Oxford Dictionary describes the word international as ‘existing, involving or carried out between two or more nations’. And certainly there were two. But what about the rest of us – the mere hundred or so countries who are left out of this definition? In the South we are used to being seen as the ‘other’, outside the mainstream. So it’s not surprising that we don’t count as ‘international’ – even if there are more than just two of us. But imagine if small groups of three or four nations in the South started to call themselves ‘international’ and set up, say, international date lines or international copyright agreements that we thought should apply to the whole world. There would be chaos. But here we just let Mr Blair’s and Mr Bush’s use of the word pass, unchallenged. Ergo: Britain plus America equals ‘international’. The rest of us can just lump it.

There are many things this invasion/war has taught us about language: indeed, it has coined a whole new vocabulary of its own. Now if you want to take a potshot at a friend it’s OK. You can call it ‘friendly fire’. Somehow it makes it less horrible if you’ve been killed by someone who is your friend, or more accurately, who is not your enemy. These things happen. It also makes you feel less guilty: you intended to kill the enemy (which is OK) but ended up killing the friend (which is unfortunate but also OK). Then, if you want to take a leaf out of the language of previous world wars, one or two of the same actors can call themselves by the same name: ‘the allies’. If all the Muslim states (bar one) join together to oppose the invasion, this does not make them either a coalition, or allies. Those words belong to someone else. They have to find their own.

One day as I switched on the television to see the ‘terrible beauty’ of war, I found US General Tommy Franks talking to the press. ‘This is not a war about propaganda,’ he told the assembled journalists, ‘it is about truth’

One day as I switched on the television to see the ‘terrible beauty’ of war, I found US General Tommy Franks talking to the press. ‘This is not a war about propaganda,’ he told the assembled journalists, ‘it is about truth.’

Truth? Can propaganda by any other name equal truth? That’s what the US army and the American Administration would have us believe. If the invading armies were not greeted with flowers and cheers as expected that was because the locals were ‘frightened’ of expressing their emotions truthfully, for fear of reprisals. So they thought they’d wait for the invasion to be complete. Then truth will out.

But all is not lost. There is at least one word used in the current débâcle that does mean what it says: ‘embedded’ – as in ‘embedded’ journalists. Usually I think of ‘embedded’ as something that is dug in, that can’t be separated from its surroundings. Like jewels embedded in metal or names embedded in nameplates. I’ve never thought of people embedded in something, but that’s what the invasion gave us. Journalists embedded with the army, with the marines. They’re fixed firmly in their surroundings and they get a vantage point and a view they may not otherwise have had. So – to mix a metaphor – why should they question the hand that feeds them?

Every battle and every conflict creates its own vocabulary, a combination of words and ideas that are calculated to hide the reality and brutality of war – to camouflage the deaths, the horror and injustice that are its corollaries. As long as you can claim to be the ‘liberators’ and call the others the ‘enemy’, you rob them of their humanity, you cheat them of their right to live. As long as you can claim to be restoring ‘their’ wealth to them, you can take charge of it and claim to be ‘managing’ it for them.

But losing our words, allowing them to be appropriated and manipulated, means losing much more. It means losing our humanity, it means losing our voice.

Urvashi Butalia is an Indian writer and publisher.
She lives in New Delhi.

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