– Clive Kessler
The Malaysian Insider
September 22, 2013
“In a public tribunal, many air grouses over Election 2013,” your recent TMI headline trumpets.
Malaysian journalistic usage, with its verbal idiosyncrasies, is sometimes strange.
Even stranger is the fact that those who seek to offer an alternative approach, or speak in a different voice, often (and unthinkingly, so it seems) adopt the language of the dominant press.
They, and here now including The Malaysian Insider, do so without recognizing the hidden assumptions and attitudes, the insidious implications, that are built into those all too familiar “mainstream” usages.
Malaysians love to speak of “woes”.
A woe is a disaster that descends without discernible cause, mysteriously, and without anyone being responsible. Since they exclude human agency, the word’s connotations are exculpatory.
To call some systemic failure (of public utilities or services) a “woe” is to imply that it is a mysterious affliction, a metaphysical conundrum, for which nobody is, or may be held, accountable.
Whose interests does this implication, neatly smuggled unawares by the word “woe” into a reader’s response to the reported facts, serve?
In the face of “woes”, Malaysian citizens are often said to have “grouses”, even grouses that the powerful may from time to time graciously acknowledge and perhaps, however ineptly, attempt to assuage.
But what is a grouse?
It is a querulous and ungrounded complaint, a petty and ungrateful expression of unwarranted resentment, an irritating and pestering expression of dissatisfaction.
To call a complaint a grouse is to imply that those who voice it are simply indulging in immature, churlish and gratuitous denunciation, not that they may have a legitimate cause of dissatisfaction and complaint.
The “woes” and the ensuing “grouses” that people are driven to express — so this unfortunate choice of words wrongly suggests — are malign visitations of unfathomable fate, unlike the “problems” and “failures” that arise from human action and the workings or otherwise of humanly created systems.
Again, whose interests does recourse to the preferred mainstream usage serve? It’s not hard to see.
So, even if the politicians and mainstream press keep using these favourite terms (as well they may, since the hidden connotations suit their purposes), why should others with different views, as well as their own distinctive professional approaches and obligations, follow their ways?
Why would TMI want to reinforce the semantic “anti-accountability shield” that — by choosing these two misleading words — those entrusted with public office happily wear to protect them from public opinion, even legitimate public dissatisfaction?
Words like “woes” and “grouse”, as they are routinely used in Malaysian political language, are just that: semantic shields, “cop-out” devices. They are instruments of evasion: for evading moral and public accountability.
Or, otherwise put, they are “get out of jail cards” for politicians and public authorities who refuse to accept or who fail in the discharge of their responsibilities.
So, every time you feel tempted to talk of “woes” or “grouses”, please think twice. No, not twice. Just once should be enough.
As George Orwell taught us long ago, the offence here is a dual one. These words are not just clichés. They are the instruments, often cunningly deployed and then lazily accepted, of political befuddlement.
Political corruption, the corruption of public life, begins with the corruption of language and thought.
So the beginnings of an alternative politics must involve a critique of the dominant usages and the generation of a new language of public debate.
The imperative need of the moment, in Malaysia and worldwide, is a “semantically-led political recovery”.
It should begin here by people naming so-called “woes” as problems, which occur and persist because those in authority who have that responsibility have failed to fix them.
And by recognising that so-called “grouses” are generally expressions of legitimate grievance, protests against failures and injustices that people should not have to endure. That governments should not make them endure.
To call them “woes” and “grouses” is to join those in authority — shamefully eager to flee from accountability over how they carry out of their public responsibilities — in trivialising legitimate expressions of popular discontent.
Worse, in dismissing them with a nasty, contemptuous sneer.