Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Blurp 002: Language

This 'blurp' was written quite some time back, and for the longest time, I felt I can't publish it because it needs to be more polished, and more researched upon. Unfortunately, knowing the speed that I digest things, it might never see the light of the day. Therefore, here it is with all its glorious flaws and abrupt jumps within and out of the topic. I have also realised that I've used terms and labels rather interchangeably, which is wrong and a big fat clue on the infancy of my knowledge. Perhaps in the future I will look on this and drop my jaws in horror.

My request to you is to please correct me on the wrong parts, tell me your opinions and thoughts, and may we one day step closer in understanding the world we live in.


Often, if not, always, when I try to think of something, it starts off very neatly. Then, hmm, this seems related, and I would open up a drawer in my mind. Then another link would appear, which results in another drawer's contents displayed in front of me. And this becomes a chain of thoughts leading one to another; more drawers opened, and contents spread out.

I just wanted to bring all my resources together so I could draw on them when I need to. As one theory brought me to another and another, I am set on a journey that become further away from where I started. The next thing I know, I'm more confused than ever. Far from answering or being able to delve further into the initial thought. Metaphorical paper thoughts are strewn all over the room and I stand up, gazing at the horrible mess, not knowing where it begins and ends... and I'm overwhelmed. Makes me woozy. Vomit-y.

(tl;dr version: Augghhhhhh!!! LOL.)

If I find it hard to articulate ideas and thoughts to other people, boy, I have trouble doing so to myself. At least, I tell myself with a consolation pat on my back, it had been worse. And... you gotta start somewhere, right?

"The pen is mightier than the sword."

How it is indeed... for a person who loved words, this saying was a little badge of pride on my chest. I knew vaguely the meaning of it; in short, more could come from ideas, thoughts and knowledge while the weapons could only do so much and it is an end.

It's funny how life went the way it did; giving me chance after chance to stumble on paths that builds on this topic, when I had not been seeking it. But that's life, isn't it? I know that I am the person I am today, polished by a series of unexpected events, a disruption in my 'peaceful life'... it was troubling, yes. But as it turns out, these became the people and experiences that I treasure very dearly.

...I meant to say, that I discovered that the meaning of the adage runs deeper. Instead I ended up thinking about how I got there. It does feel like a dream sometimes. But I digress =).

So words. The torch of ideas, thoughts and knowledge... that, mind you, goes both ways, spreading good or evil. It was eye-opening, to discover how brutality, the fueling of racism/unwarranted phobias and etc can be masked under the guise of civility, academic words (that suggests intelligence) or labels laden with an incline to a perception, in order to dehumanise people thus allowing atrocities and/or injustice to happen to them. Lies are one thing, and this is another.

During the Rwanda genocide where the ethnic Hutu people tried to eliminate the ethnic Tutsi, a radio broadcast fueled the hatred on Tutsis by calling them 'cockroaches' over and over.

Why did they do that? With that word alone, it considerably writes off Tutsis as human beings... who are someone like us - someone who has a family, someone who feels love, pain, joy and sorrow, someone who could be a good friend etc. Therefore, considerably harder to kill from that viewpoint, but cockroaches... Cockroaches must be crushed and destroyed. They are meant to be eliminated, so, why should you feel guilty over killing pests? The estimate of deaths for this is from 500k to a million.
I suppose one could argue that to the hate-mongering Hutus, that's what Tutsis are to them: pests. While a historical festering discontent is largely to blame for the Hutu's hatred towards Tutsi, the words play a part too. Hatred blinded people and it is further fueled by rebranding them as pests. What would had happen if this dehumanising exercise was not practiced, I wonder? Perhaps the count wouldn't had reached as many as it did, because people would recognise the shared human qualities, instead of the merciless slaughter (including children and babies). Perhaps this is something worth thinking about.
Reducing the weight of actions 
In the same line of relabeling, in news reporting military campaigns, where 'collateral damage' is mentioned, would you blink an eye? How about if it was laid out this way instead - 'a school was destroyed and dozens of 6-10 years olds were killed'? Both usage of words denotes a loss, but which one would the public react more strongly to? If you were on the military's side, in order to have more public approval and it would make funding their mission an easier road, which choice of words would they use? And DECISIONS are made based on these reports, especially by the public in a democratic country. Which brings to question; is that democracy, or simply, manufactured consent?

The brainwashing of the subconscious
Or, it could come in misleading ways; properly formulated to make themselves feel as though one is more cultured and advanced than the Other, which are labeled as 'savages' and thus, the necessity to invade and 'teach them the civilised ways' are inevitable. This may seem eons ago, but these impressions, perceptions are strong... The bias persists. Repeat it long enough, and even these labeled-savages would begin to believe that they are the inferior culture too.

As an example, I grew up in a space where bad command in English is both unconsciously and consciously looked down upon. Liberalism is often narrowly confined to speaking, acting and thinking like a conventional Westerner. It is not to say that all aspects of that should be destroyed in order to preserve our culture*, for there are aspects of goodness. And yet, traditionalism is often thought of as something that belongs to a bygone time, belonging to a museum while we adopt an 'international' culture whose language, mannerism and values are inherently Western.

Good or bad? Initially I thought this was a good thing, but as I learnt more, the Western model seems to bring in more problems than the good. It's a consumerism society - that while it makes things look hunky dory from the outside, there are a lot of suffering because of it too. In an economy where the culture is buy-buy-buy to keep it running, it also sacrifices their citizens - subtle encouraging dissatisfaction, low self worth and unhappiness that they turn to products to feel 'fulfilled' (but they never are, at least not for long). We can see it in the illnesses that plague the society - bulimia, anorexia, depression etc . While mental illnesses happen in any society, consumerism or not, I'm just saying that it's greater in one that hungers for people's insecurities so they could feed off them. Where the emphasis for support are in buying products and not as being part of a family and community (though the tide is slowly turning for some people).

There is probably no 'perfect culture'; more of, there are lessons to be learnt from people who have gone through that route and came out scarred. So, while some values and practices are good to be adopted, blindly aping all that is Western may not be the best thing to do. That's all I'm saying as one who had blindly aped...

(* Another pandora's box... what is OUR culture now? Who are we, when you take away these influences? Are we not already lost in our own country, living on another's dreams? As a former tutor, I see this loss in my students, and a growing sense that mine is also on shaky grounds.... our identity is made up of everything else but our culture. Which brings me back to the initial point... what IS our identity?

In a couple of places that I've traveled to, I'd see a sort of sameness. I could be in HongKong, Thailand or Vietnam, and people would be in jeans and T-shirts. And... I'd feel slightly gutted. I read somewhere that perhaps this is an imperialism of the mind. And people embraced it? Do we like it, or is it perceived as what a modern, liberal, right-thinking individual would wear?

Despite how innocuous words seem, it carries an presumption, a weight, an implicit meaning. Consciously, we deny it, but within the subconscious part of our minds, we ARE affected, influencing our thoughts and decisions. Words and images from the mass media bombard us with association by word; it would be some time until that is ingrained within the collective mind and soaked up by the unconscious part of our minds.

There is a project by Harvard called the Implicit Association Test, which pretty much demonstrates the dichotomy of what we want to think and what we truly think. It's quite interesting, really; there are a variety of different tests, but I'll just use the Black/White people and Positive/Negative verb one. In one of them, they would have a white man on the left and a black man on the right. Both look 'normal', meaning they don't look sinister or evil or angelic, therefore no bias. A word with a positive or a negative connotation would flash between the photos, and we're to respond as quickly as possible by pressing one out of two buttons on the keyboard to associate the word with one of the two photos.

It was significant in how positive words are associated with white people and negative with black people. Even when one associates the positive word with the black man; the test also measures the response time for each answer and found that we are slower when we do so. Do try the test - I do understand that it is rather US-centric, however, most of us are exposed to their culture frequent and long enough to pick up the cues of these biases.

And we live in a world now where we are bombarded with perceptions and bias and subtle discrimination; perhaps it's worthy to think of how it influenced our minds and how it affects our society. An example I read from Farish A Noor's What Your Teacher Didn't Tell You, is how while the early political parties before Merdeka sought to fight against the British divide-and-rule to gain an independent harmonious multicultural country, they still inherited the biases and perceptions from the British rule such as the Lazy Useless Malay idea; that inferiority complexes. The Chinese are more industrious than the Malays. The British are better than the local people.

(Random: A thought by a friend in Singapore... why do we have different names for foreign people who arrive in our country to work? Western people are called 'expats', while Filipinos, Bangladeshis etc in the same job scope are called 'foreign talents'? And the former gets paid more. One could argue that they are from a country where their salary in Singapore won't support their livelihood in the States, so perhaps this thought is moot.)

Perhaps the choices we make in our wordings might give a glimpse on our inner thoughts. Perhaps the words that we read; as it gets filtered through our minds, the biases get stuck in that filter and it festers like a stubborn stain that grows with time if we're careless about it.


Recently, Oslo (Norway) was shaken by a horrible attack; a man bombed a building, and while people are confused and distracted over it, went over to a small island where a youth leadership camp is held and shot over 70 teenagers. It was heartwrenching to read of the victim's life and how he/she was a jigsaw piece that completed their family, and now they are left with a sudden gaping hole. Writing this is making me tear up again.

Why do I speak of this in this post?

I'm rather uncomfortable bringing this up, in the light of the deaths; for that what people need now is the support for the families and people who are directly and indirectly affected by this, as well as a condemnation of the action of that man. Perhaps, an examination into the choice of words that had been used shouldn't be a priority at all.

But it did struck me.... how when the man was still unknown - it was branded as an act of terror. A terrorist attack. Allegations and guesses were thrown back and forth, and at least one expert prominently linked it to an Islamist group. Condemnation came from left, right and centre for this horrible terrorist acts.

Then they found out it was a Christian man who disliked the immigration policies.

Immediately the tone changed. Condemnation still poured in for this now-madman's act, and the media speaks of it as though whatever cause he has, he is just a lone wolf. He is no longer the terrorist, but a madman/gunman.

From an article:
A police official said the suspect appears to have acted alone in both attacks, and that "it seems like this is not linked to any international terrorist organisations at all." The official spoke on condition of anonymity because that information had not been officially released by Norway's police."It seems it's not Islamic-terror related," the official said. "This seems like a madman's work."

What is the difference? If one called him a 'terrorist' or a 'madman'? Aren't all terrorists madmen?

It carries a different weight... a madman is someone who does things because he's a bit whoohooooo up there, therefore in a way, his act is distanced from responsibility, while, a terrorist is meticulous and sane in his actions where he resorts to striking terror via violence to promote his cause/ideology.

In this case, the Oslo gunman also had an ideology, planned his steps well (some even called him a genius planner) and ruthlessly wiped off human beings.

Is there a double standard there? Or are acts of violence simply reserved for Muslims? When one Muslim bombs up a place, Muslims elsewhere shares the responsibility. And the perception has eaten in us so strongly that when the news first broke out, I could imagine Muslims holding their breath and worrying that the man might be Muslim. And he's not. A secret relieved sigh.

I do believe that it is more complicated than that. There are a number of other things to think about with this too. Like one, certain Muslims aren't helping to make the perception better. One might blame Muslims themselves, for certain cultures whose main religion is Islam, are pretty backward and violent. The stories we hear from them are quite horrible. (In regards to that, you could say that their study in Islam is bad and that they lack the wisdom needed in the study of Islam for they use out-of-context verses to support their violent acts. Some points out that it's not Islam that is violent, but those countries mentioned already have a violent culture to start with, and while it embraced Islam, it inherited their own violent culture.)

Another thing is perhaps a concentrated effort to spread fear about Islam. It's something that I wish to study deeply one day - the portrayal of Muslims and Islamic civilisation from the West from the beginning.

... Again, while double standards should be mentioned, it shouldn't be the main story. The main story is that many, many young promising lives were lost and families are in pain from this senseless attack. Some people lost a whole bunch of friends at once. What an empty feeling that is!! This gap should be filled with condolences, kindness, a helping hand and a strong condemnation for such a cowardly act, and not, "HAH! Discrimination! Double standards! I'm right all along!!!".

While a person may feel that they've been wronged, it doesn't give them the right to be insensitive and to play the bigger victim. In fact, if one keeps concentrating on being wronged, it would turn into an unhealthy culture of finger pointing and they would forget to look into the mirror.

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