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Using language that will heal, not cause wounds

by Shanie

"I know the truth - give up all other truths!
No need for people anywhere on earth to struggle.

Look – it is evening, look, it is nearly night;
What do you speak of, poets, lovers, generals?

The wind is level now, the earth is wet with dew,
The storm of stars in the sky will turn to quiet.

And soon all of us will sleep under the earth, we
Who never let each other sleep over it. - Marina Tsvetayeva (1892-1941)

(January 15, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Today is the 82nd birth anniversary of the Revd Martin Luther King, the US civil rights activist. Today, equal rights for the non-white Americans are almost taken for granted as an accepted right in US society, even though accusations of discrimination still prevail. But it was not so when Martin Luther King began his civil rights movement, and the blacks were subject to law-sanctioned discrimination in so many ways. That was less than fifty years ago. It was the heroic and courageous activism of this non-violent crusader and many others of all communities that discrimination against blacks was outlawed by a several legislative enactments beginning in 1964.

Of his speeches and writings, King is today best remembered for his ‘I have a dream ‘ speech delivered in 1963 before the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. Although that speech rightly ranks as one of the finest delivered by any US leader, less known but equally significant is what King stated when he was once asked what he would like to be remembered for. He said that at his death, ‘I'd like somebody to mention that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I'd like for somebody to say that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody.

I want you to say that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that I did try to feed the hungry. I want you to be able to say that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. And I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.

Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major. Say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.’

Healing and not wounding

Last Saturday in this column, we bemoaned the hatred and violence that was sweeping many parts of the world. We referred to the assassination of Salman Taseer, Governor of Punjab in Pakistan, by one of his bodyguards because he publicly called for the repeal of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and for the pardon of a woman sentenced to death for blasphemy. Hardly had the ink dried in the printing of that column, we had news of the attempted assassination of a US legislator, Gabrielle Gifford. That attempt in Arizona which killed six people and injured many more has sparked off a huge debate in the US about speeches by political leaders which incite people to violence. The target of criticism has been Sarah Palin and her Tea Party movement within the Republican Party. She and her supporters have been accused rightly or wrongly of using words and symbols that could have meant an encouragement to violence.

Al Sharpton, like Martin Luther King a minister of the Baptist church and a civil rights activist, has been a controversial radical charged with using words that could have been interpreted as inciting violence. He and Sarah Palin are on opposite ends of the political divide. In a statement issued following the Arizona shooting, Sharpton in a moment of candour confesses that he had at times used words that were inappropriate. He refers to a statement that he once made over an issue of a white landlord trying to evict a longtime owner of the first black-owned in a particular street in Harlem, New York and his calling that landlord as a "white interloper". A couple of months later, a black man had set fire to a store killing six employees and himself and the media connected that violence to Sharpton’s remark. Sharpton says: "My initial response was to defend the fact that I had never condoned such violence, and never would. But the fact is, if I in any way contributed to the climate - which was clearly more volatile than I had thought - I had to be more careful and deliberate in my public language rather than sharpen my defenses."

President Obama spoke at the memorial service to the victims of the Arizona shooting. He also referred to the language we use in public discourse and said that leaders must use words that heal rather than words that create more wounds. He added: "Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together."

Lessons for Sri Lanka

The reason why this column has highlighted the two recent assassination and near-assassination attempts in Pakistan and US is because we in our country also need to understand the dangers of using symbols and words that cause hatred, intolerance and for violence to grow. We would say that hundreds of thousands of ordinary people in our country have no animosity to the ‘other’ and desire to live in amity with each other as equals. Bad mouthing politicians can be dismissed as people who will say one thing today and another tomorrow and people will not take them seriously. The typical example is Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan aka Karuna, commander of the LTTE in the east at the time of the massacres of innocent civilians, policemen and the religious, and now a deputy minister. His words and actions and his words then are strikingly different from his words now. Does anyone believe that he has had a moral or religious conversion? Or is the difference between then and now simply a question of political opportunism and survival? We do not need to be political pundits to know which is the more credible explanation.

But leaving politicians and political careerists aside, what is more worrying are the writings and utterances of journalists and civil society professionals. They throw away all their professionalism by resorting to name-calling and using language that is, to say the least, unprofessional. Just this week, we had one of them, in an otherwise good contribution, liberally using the term ‘traitors’ to refer to those from whose political positions he differed. Another in an otherwise well-written academic essay, refers to Tamil academics from whose positions he differed as ‘Eelamists’. As far as this column is aware, nowhere in the writings of those Tamil academics has there been any espousal of separatism (presumably this is what is meant by being an eelamist). But the term is used in this essay purely to abuse and rubbish the research and findings of those academics.

Sadly, the term ‘traitors’ is now used with gay abandon to anyone who differs from the hard line position of the nationalists in the south – the counterparts in the south of the Prabhakarans in the north. Anyone advocating a new accommodation for the minorities in the current context or who then advocated a negotiated settlement avoiding war is either a traitor or pro-LTTE. Responsible writers, journalists and other commentators, need to be restrained in the use of language and avoid name-calling and facile labelling of those who differ from them. They should be asking that we listen to one other. They should be setting an example to our political careerists and apologists about civility in public discourse. Furtherance of any views that someone holds is only weakened by the use of inappropriate language. As Obama said, we should be using language that can cause healing, not wounds. Marina Tsvetsyeva was a sensitive poet who lived through the Russian Revolution and later through the Stalin years, and in a fit of depression reportedly committed suicide at a comparatively young age. Her poem which we have quoted above must strike a resonance in our context today. We are not the only people who know the truth. Sometimes, the truth can be elsewhere. That is why it is important we cultivate the art of listening.

Comment is free but facts are sacred

Journalists have a clear duty to be fair in the presentation of news. Selective or tendentious reporting, the use of misleading headlines, attributing to ‘sources’ news items which they know to be unsubstantiated, inaccurate or even false, etc are common failings. C P Scott served as editor of the Guardian newspaper (then Manchester Guardian) in the UK for over fifty years in its near 200 year history. On the newspaper’s centenary in 1921, he wrote an essay where his sentence, ‘Comment is free, but facts are sacred’ has survived as the ultimate standard for a free press. But it is well worth re-reading what he wrote then and we hope The Island will someday be able to publish that essay in full. We now however wish to quote a substantial extract from that essay:

"A newspaper has two sides to it. It is a business, like any other, and has to pay in the material sense in order to live. But it is much more than a business; it is an institution; it reflects and it influences the life of a whole community; it may affect even wider destinies. It is, in its way, an instrument of government. It plays on the minds and consciences of men. It may educate, stimulate, assist, or it may do the opposite. It has, therefore, a moral as well as a material existence, and its character and influence are in the main determined by the balance of these two forces. It may make profit or power its first object, or it may conceive itself as fulfilling a higher and more exacting function.

A newspaper is of necessity something of a monopoly, and its first duty is to shun the temptations of monopoly. Its primary office is the gathering of news. At the peril of its soul it must see that the supply is not tainted. Neither in what it gives, nor in what it does not give, nor in the mode of presentation must the unclouded face of truth suffer wrong. Comment is free, but facts are sacred. "Propaganda", so called, by this means is hateful. The voice of opponents no less than that of friends has a right to be heard. Comment also is justly subject to a self-imposed restraint. It is well to be frank; it is even better to be fair."

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