02 February 2023

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

 Marlon Ariyasinghe, poet, dramatist and friend, understands words. He understands that words are political or can be so. A few days ago he offered some observations on the words ‘resilient’ and ‘resilience’ through an Instagram post:

‘The words ‘resilient’ and ‘resilience’ should be banned in Sri Lanka (I’ve used them too). Politicians have been using this word for decades to show how much of a threshold we have for suffering and how quickly we normalise [the] horrific.’

Yes. Politicians have done that. They still do.  In fact it is almost second nature for politicians to do such things. It’s one of the many strategies used to appropriate that which rightfully belongs to other people. Tyrants toss around the word ‘democracy.’ Brutes have talked about a ‘Dharmista Samajaya’ or, as they translated, ‘a just and free society.’ The world has known prisons and torture chambers named ‘Peace’ and ‘Freedom.’ People have been convinced or coerced to abandon practices that are sustainable and have thereafter been forced to adopt others that are not but nevertheless named ‘sustainable.’

Language is political and Marlon is right — the words ‘resilient’ and ‘resilience’ have been used to sweeten unbearable condition; people have been pushed to thresholds of suffering and the associated horrors have been normalised by celebrating resistance and fortitude simply through the (over) use of such terms.

There are other words which, through overuse and abuse, have been robbed of meaning and indeed even rendered unusable simply on account of association with the horrific, laughable and absolutely deceitful.

Peace is a word that had a 'good' run not too long ago. It was used, overused and abused by those who were determined to sanitise terrorists, terrorism and attempted land-theft. The track records of politicians touting a particular brand of ‘peace’ as well as their approvers sullied the word to the point that it was divested of meaning apart from the fact that it came to be associated with all kinds of racketeers.  

‘Sahodaraya’ which literally means brother but was used as the Sinhala equivalent of ‘comrade.’ The track record of the sahodarayo and the outcome of sahodarakama, so to speak, made it a term associated with all manner of atrocities.

Aragalaya or rebellion used to be a respectable word. What the ‘Aragalaya’ produced, the ways and means preferred by prominent ‘aragalists,’ the identity of their principal backers and the simple fact that its champions were essentially fighting for a right to beg and therefore celebrated mendicancy and turned a population into beggars, has now inscribed elements of villainy on that word.

Democracy. Good governance. Nation. Nationalism. Patriot. Patriotism. Motherland. System-change. All overused, abused and therefore made less usable. "Resilience' and 'resilient' are comparatively benign. What this means is that language is also a site of struggle. Words have meaning and if meaning is robbed, words lose their potency.  

The thing with words is that you can’t really ban their usage. You can, at best, stop using them and hope they go away and become politically irrelevant. What can be done is to wrest the word from the powerful, call out their villainy and make it hard for the usurper of words to misuse them.

Terrorist sympathisers can and will sanitise pernicious endgames by using words such as peace and reconciliation. Does this mean that we should not use those words? Will not such refusal make way for the continued ill-use of such words?

Put another way, is resilience a bad thing? Should we cease to be resilient? Should we look for synonyms and try to popularise them? Should we take the struggle over words, language and meaning underground? Perhaps. The cockroach is said to be one of the most resilient creatures on the planet. Does not utter a word though.

We don’t and cannot take issue with the word; we can and should contest usage by confronting the user. This, I believe, is what Marlon calls for. It might require the abandonment of a word or term or else recovering the power to define and use it. Resistance is called for. Contestation is called for. It’s a battle and in this battle, in the fact of often superior forces, resilience is a virtue. Whether or not we call it that.  

Words. They are not innocent. Language. It’s not apolitical. It is a battlefield, yes,  even a single word is a site of struggle. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu once observed that things that go without saying often come without saying. Applicable to words and the mischief they are part of. The user is not innocent and those who resist cannot afford to be naive. 


['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below] 


Other articles in this series:

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart The allegory of the slow road