Powerful Speech: Disempowering Language

This is the third in a series of four posts

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The Turkish regime derived its claim to supremacy over the Kurds from alleged campaigns of conquest in Anatolia a thousand years ago. There had not been other peoples there. Therefore, Kurd and Kurdistan are non-words, non-existent and not allowed to exist according to the official ideology. These words are unimportant and dangerous, and their use can even amount to an act of terrorism and is punished correspondingly.
                                        —Abdullah Öcalan, Abdullah, War and Peace in Kurdistan


Free speech does not coerce, nor serve the power that does.  Rather, free speech frees from coercion: It empowers. The power of speech as such is the power to free, not the power to coerce. It is the power of the open hand, not of the closed fist: of invitation, not compulsion. 

The right to speak that most demands respect and protection is not that of those who lay claim to authority and claim the right to coerce others in its name. It is that of those who claim no authority, and practice no coercion: those who use language to say what is, and thereby let it be seen.

That, after all, is what language is for, and how it should be used.

The powers that be do not use language to say what is, that it can be seen. They use it, instead, to hide what is—and most especially to conceal the very exercise of coercive power itself—precisely in order thereby to enable such power to coerce all the more effectively.

One of the best ways to do just that—to rob language of its own power, the non-coercive power to say what is, to open it up and let it be seen—is to turn words into weapons while pretending that one is still speaking them as words. It is to strip words of their own power to say, turning them into mere weapons of service to those who wield them.

In the epigraph to one of the chapters in her book Notes on a Foreign County: An American Abroad in a Post-American World, published just a few months ago (Farrar, Strous & Giroux, 2017), journalist Suzy Hansen cites (on page 190 of her book) these words from John Edgar Wideman, an honored African American writer:   

When we revert to the final solution of kill or be killed, all warring parties in the name of clan tribe nation religion violate the first law of civilization—that human life is precious. In this general collapse, one of the first victims is language. Words are deployed as weapons to identify, stigmatize, eliminate, the enemy.

A bit earlier in the book, Hansen has already given a good illustration of just such a transformation of words into weapons, one that happened early on during the Cold War. “When President Eisenhower,” she writes (on page 149), “observed that the word ‘capitalism’ had become [around the world] associated with imperialism, he was disturbed. From then on [. . .] he decreed that capitalism would be replaced with words such as ‘free enterprise,’ ‘the free world,’ or, most simple, ‘freedom.’”

In such manipulation of language, Eisenhower used his Presidential power to silence those who tried to protest against the imperialism that goes with capitalism. He took action to silence them by depriving them of the very language they needed to say what was going on, including what Eisenhower himself was doing to them with his linguistic sleights-of-hand. In doing so, he did nothing different from what a cop does when he applies a law, ordinance, or regulation selectively to silence those whose discourse disagrees with him. He was doing the same thing I did when, as a summer cop on the Jersey Shore in 1971, I used an already long-outdated local ordinance against going barefoot anywhere off the beach to harass a couple of teenagers who dared to express their opinion of me and my kind to one another in my august presence. I used my position of “authority” on that occasion to be a little Eisenhower, as it were. In both cases, the freedom of speech was being effectively denied to those who had the most need of it.

Concerning a more recent, widespread case of the same process of silencing the voices of those who would protest coercion—silencing them by robbing them of the very language they need to protest, and simultaneously robbing them of their very humanity by applying exclusionary labels to them collectively—here are some powerful words from French philosopher Alain Badiou. He spoke them on December 8, 2010, during a session of a monthly seminar he conducted between 2010 and 2012 under the title Que signifie “changer le monde”? (What Does It Mean “To Change the World”?), which was just recently made available in print (Fayard, 2017).

Badiou’s words on that occasion are especially worth pondering today, after the recent damage caused by hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Nate. We can learn from what Badiou says as we consider the lives already lost—and the many more still to be lost in the future—to such severe weather events, which are at least made much more severe, if not directly caused, by the ongoing global climate change effected by a consumer capitalism itself gone rampantly global.

Discussing how terms such as “terrorist” have been stripped of their genuine historical meaning and made to serve as no more than weapons of exclusion, Badiou remarks (from page 71 of the book, in my free translation):

“Terrorist” is a singularly stigmatizing term applied, in reality, to a conjunction of acts with convictions: not just any act gets called that, only one tied to a conviction. What’s more, it’s striking to see that that [that is, being connected to a conviction] is far graver than being connected to an interest. To kill for a conviction is far worse than to kill for money. Why? Because in our world the desire for money is taken to be an ordinary passion, whereas a conviction is not normal, it’s extreme.

The use of such separating or exclusionary names or terms as “terrorist” or “Islamist” is actually coercive, although it presents itself as descriptive. It serves to silence those to whom it is applied, to erase them by reducing them to no more than instances of some class of supposed “enemies.” The goal of such labeling is to create a presumed popular consensus, an assumed and no longer questioned illusion of public unanimity, for the sake of controlling and manipulating an entire population.

Who is not horrified by such acts of “Islamic terrorists” as the attacks of September 11, 2001? It is therefore in the interest of coercive power to keep the memory of such horrendous deeds always before the public’s eye, demanding of one and all that they “never forget.”

Such a call, however, is only to a very selective remembrance, one that altogether ignores the far, far greater death and destruction brought on by the acts of the very coercive power that calls us “never to forget” September 11—the power that has flown national flags at half-mast every September 11th since then. The fear of such horrors as the collapse of the Twin Towers is always to be kept alive, in order to keep the current order in order—and the profits flowing.

What more effective way could there be, to silence all voices that might otherwise be raised to protest that order, and that power?     

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To be continued.