Choice of words, and the shaping of opinions

Hafiz Noor Shams
Malay Mail Online
August 25, 2015

AUGUST 25 — When I think of the terms “coup d’état”, “overthrow”, “topple” and the like, I would think of a violent change in government. The revolutions in Egypt and Ukraine would come to my mind. Closer to home, having tanks rolling through the streets of Bangkok is another excellent example.

In contrast, when I think of the case of Abdullah Ahmad Badawi — backstabbed by his Umno colleagues and pressured to resign what seems ages ago — the whole episode falls under the realm of peaceful power transfer.

It lacks the violence or coerciveness that colours the words “coup d’état”, “overthrow” and “topple” so thickly. The events in 2008-2009 were messy but democracy is always unruly. It is never as clean as an autocrat dressed in a democrat costume would like. These autocrats think modern democracy is about having regular elections only while ignoring other prerequisites that are just as important.

I do not think the definition of “topple” I have outlined exists only in my mind. The violent undertone it brings falls within the everyday understanding of the word. If “topple” had been used to describe the end of the Abdullah-led administration, then I would think the term has been abused grossly.

And so I frown when Najib Razak’s supporters and the police chief especially throw around that word to describe attempts at removing the prime minister from power through a vote of no confidence in Parliament. So insecure they are that even calling for his resignation is a go at coup d’état.

But perhaps after so much power and institutional corruption committed by Umno and their BN allies in government, it is only natural for the same side to corrupt the language we use every day.

I would think they know they are twisting these words beyond their intended meaning. It is a purposeful exaggeration to meet their selfish political end, which is to stay in power even at the expense of the country.

The bigger problem is when the intended recipients of the political message, mostly men and women on the streets, accept the word subversion without critical examination and then blindly reuse it in that unnatural way.

To understand why this is an issue worth highlighting, we have to understand that language has the power to shape our opinion. Language is not merely a neutral medium of exchange but it also influences how we perceive information, and from there on shapes our views.

Since “topple” comes with the violent connotation, applying it in the context of peaceful power change would likely cause the uncritical message recipients to balk and recoil from any call for change. They would hesitate from supporting change out of fear, merely because the words used.

That is the purpose of word subversion. It tries to pollute the legitimate peaceful means of change with the created image of smoke, fire and death. It is done to instill fear in us, make us feel hopeless and convince us to do nothing even in the face of injustice. It is to discourage the case for peaceful power change.

The sages of old told us not to judge a book by its cover. But let us face it. We almost always act on the first impression. We read the headline and prejudge without reading the whole article. We live in the too-long, didn’t-read culture.

In the same line of reasoning, most of us do not think too much of how “topple” has been used. I have spotted too many innocent men and women reusing the word in the corrupted context without realizing it, thus perpetuating fear and serving the pro-Najib camp.

I am sure I am guilty of the same sin I warn of here in other cases elsewhere. It is truly tiring trying to be critical about every single word uttered, read and written all the time with a thick dictionary by my side.

But during this chaotic dishonest period when words are abused frequently, meanings are not so straight forward and outright doubletalk is the norm, we must stand guard for the tabula rasa that still exists in the corners of our mind. We just cannot afford to be the uncritical blind consumers of language waiting to be exploited in these deplorable days full of deceits.

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