Beware the power of words

Language is such a bloody curse.

On the one hand it possesses the most amazing transformative power. The most palpable example from our recent history is the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) talks in the early Nineties.

In a very fundamental way it was the use of the most appropriate political language that served as a catalyst for the democratic process to get under way. When negotiators chatted well into the early hours of the ­morning, they were not merely looking to achieve a practical outcome, however important that was. The very act of speaking constituted political activity.

In a positive way the political negotiations were the earliest steps towards a recognition that the proverbial other is one’s moral and political equal. The outcomes, a democratic election and a normative vision enshrined in the Constitution, were important concrete goals. But the political grammar of that time constituted positive, transformative speech acts.

Sadly, the power inherent in language is also susceptible to abuse. Just as an inspirational declaration from Martin Luther King that he has ‘a dream!” can galvanise a people to continue its struggle for political and social freedom, so the words ‘kill the boer!” can instil fear in thousands of human beings accidentally born into a white skin through no fault or choosing of their own.
Language can, therefore, be pernicious, violent and anti-transformative in the hands ­— or mouths — of irresponsible and unethical public officials and politicians.

All of which brings us, some 20 years after the Codesa talks, to teenage democratic South Africa.
Political language, unbeknown to many of our politicians, betrays the state of our politics in stark, naked terms. Sadly, it is becoming self-evident that political grammar in democratic South Africa is as violent as ever, but for a brief euphoric lull in the mid-1990s and another about to hit us in the form of the World Cup.

It is important that we recognise the symptoms that betray and occasion this violent political grammar.

Ruling ANC
It is not clear whether it is surprising or unsurprising that often the most violent political grammar comes from the ruling ANC.

The formation of the Congress of the People (Cope) saw the break-away crowd being referred to by some of their former political bedfellows as cockroaches, baboons and, that more enduring of dated insults, enemies of the national democratic revolution. Calling a political opponent a cockroach is violent speech act.

This example is powerfully illustrative of three general facts about political grammar: It exposes your psychology; it has an impact on an audience; and it constitutes a living record of the state of a society, in particular, its political space.


Calling a political opponent a cockroach, for example, is evidence of vicious ill-will on the part of the person who throws that label in the direction of another human being. Quite apart from the public impact of the statement or what it says about the political space of the time, it reveals something deeply disturbing about the psychology of the speaker in the first instance.

A useful analogy here is to think of more general instances of hate speech. If you call your black colleague a k*****, the performance of such a speech act tells us something about your own state of mind. Even in the absence of someone hearing you utter the words (say, for example, you think the word or utter it under your breath), the speech act is a powerful piece of evidence of the presence of a less than flattering moral psychology.

Vicious
Sadly, the violent political grammar that is becoming commonplace in SA today means that the work done during the early 1990s in getting our politicians to see each other as fully human is being eroded by the development of a political psychology that is more vicious than virtuous.

Besides telling us something about the psychology of a political actor, violent grammar also has violent consequences. Singing lyrics such as ‘Bring me my machine gun!” and ‘Kill the boer!” instil fear in others. It does not matter whether the intention of the speaker is not to instil fear. If there is widespread perception that these words constitute a real threat to others, an attempt to direct and curtail the speech and behaviour of others, then such words take on a violent colour that cannot be wished away on the grounds that they emanate from an innocuous mindset.

Our political actors need to realise that just as pointing a gun at someone is a violent act, even if you do not mean to kill them, so the uttering of violent grammar constitutes a wrong even if the intention is not to hurt.

Thick skins
This is not, heaven forbid, to suggest that all rhetorical flair must be taken out of political discourse. And it is important that political players across the political spectrum develop thick skins so that robust debate can be possible rather than thwarted. Why else did we fight for such civil and political freedoms as the right to free speech?

The point, however, is that moral constraints on free political speech are apt even in liberal democracies. Too many of our politicians are becoming drunk on democratic freedom and misunderstanding the moral limits of speech. Violent political grammar is, in a very real sense, non-speech.

This brings us, lastly, to the tragic historic fact that such linguistic weapons of mass destruction do not merely tell us something about the headspace of politicians nor do they ‘merely” have bad consequences.

They also constitute a record of our times. Just as a majestic speech by Mandela that ‘never again” will we live in a racist society records the conciliatory mood of the early 1990s, so the violent language of our times will embarrass us in the eyes of future generations doing a stock-take of the trajectory we were on some 16 years after our first set of democratic elections.

Yes, not all political parties or all leaders within the ANC engage in these actions. But the mere silence in relation to an overzealous youngster like Julius Malema smacks of blameworthy indifference on the part of the elders. It is not only physically violent protests that could break our democracy. Violent political grammar is sometimes equally powerful. ?

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

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Eusebius Mckaiser
Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser is a political and social analyst at the Wits Centre for Ethics. He is also a popular radio talk show host, a top international debate coach, a master of ceremonies and a public speaker of note. He loves nothing more than a good argument, having been both former National South African Debate Champion and the 2011 World Masters Debate Champion. His analytic articles and columns have been widely published in South African newspapers and the New York Times. McKaiser has studied law and philosophy. He taught philosophy in South Africa and England.
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