Words as weapons

Actress Shirley MacLaine has caused outrage with comments in her memoir suggesting holocaust victims were “balancing their karma from ages before” (see here). The book includes in the sub-title ‘A lifetime of questions, speculations…’ and so on, leaving a lot of caveated wriggle-room.  So this might be nothing more than a ham-fisted example of the old adage about ‘no such thing as bad publicity’. But in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the current debate about freedom of speech, her book highlights the power of words to wound.

This is nothing new, of course. British Prime Minister David Cameron chooses words deliberately when he talks of a “war on mediocrity” in schools. Likewise his opposite number, Ed Miliband, countering with a desire to “weaponise” the issue of the National Health Service. Intriguingly, the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland has just released a classified document from 1985. It contains advice to the then new Minister, Tom King, on toxic words to steer clear of (see here). Words like ‘British Army’, ‘orange’, ‘green’ and ‘Ireland’ may seem innocuous enough to many observers, but were felt, at the time, to be sufficiently loaded as to be worth avoiding. (When I served in Northern Ireland I remember a local councillor’s outrage at a new cycle path along a busy road. His concern was not for the safety of the cyclists. Rather at the numerous junctions on the route there were patches of tarmac where the green cycle path, white give way symbols and yellow (gold) lines intersected.  These, he fumed, were Republican symbols being foisted on the public without consultation.)

But where to draw the line between censorship and free speech if words can be so powerful? “How do you take on ideas if you hide them from view?” asked Tom Slater assistant editor of the online magazine Spiked and vocal opponent of all forms of censorship on a recent BBC Radio 4 programme, The World Tonight (link here – start at 16:37). “Censorship is a judgment on the audience,” he says, by allowing aberrant views to go unchallenged. Some authorities have resorted to legislation. An OSCE report into free media (see here) was sharply critical of Republika Srpska, the ethnic Serb portion of Bosnia, for too heavy-handedly encouraging self-censorship.

Gene Sharp, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, understands the power of words better than most. The ‘Clausewitz of nonviolent warfare,’ as he has been called, founded the Albert Einstein Institution and promotes nonviolent struggle to challenge dictatorship and oppression. His amazing film, How to start a revolution, (see trailer here) suggests one of the most powerful methods is the use of signs in English.  The point being that the audience the protesters should be appealing to is global, not local, and English is better understood world-wide than any other language.

Some in the media have started referring to Islamic State, or IS, as Daesh, knowing well the power words and language hold. France, also, now uses this term in official language (see here). Justin Marozzi, historian and author of ‘Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood’ has clear advice. “Follow the Arabs,” he says, “they don’t use the term IS for a very good reason.” The term Islamic State came from the group itself and he suggests we unwittingly confer legitimacy on them by supporting their narrative. Alternatively, Daesh, with connotations of being ‘outsiders’ or ‘renegades’ has a “strongly pejorative meaning of crushing something underfoot, of trampling on people, of being bigoted,” he says.

Words can hurt; governments know that, terrorists and individuals too.  When does free speech become incitement; when should self-censorship give way to legislation? And in a global conversation, won’t somebody always be offended?

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Morals and dilemmas

Mohammad_Mehdi_Al_BayatiAs introductions go, Mohammed Mahdi al-Bayati’s takes some beating.  Described by his media consultant as “the person with the worst job in global politics”, Iraq’s minister for human rights carries his burden with grace.  Mr Bayati, 52, an ethnic Turkmen, is a former foe of Saddam Hussein and still carries the physical scars of his efforts.  The moral compass employed by many western societies who view decisions in black and white terms does not work for Mr Bayati.  By necessity he inhabits a morally-grey world, wrestling daily with choices the likes of which will trouble mercifully few of us in our lifetimes.

Take for example what he describes as the most shocking moment of his time in office.  He talks of a 13-year-old Yazidi girl whose seven family members had been killed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, now commonly called Islamic State, or IS).  Kidnapped and repeatedly raped she was sold for $4000 US at a people-trafficking market held weekly in ISIL-controlled Mosul, Iraq’s second city.  Through his office Mr Bayati supported the girl’s purchase and continues to endorse the purchase of of other women and girls.  Does that encourage the kidnappers? “If you don’t buy for release,” he suggests, “they will be slaves.”  In the absence of a military or (highly unlikely) political solution to the problem of ISIL, moral pragmatism such as this has to suffice.

Or take his attitude towards the use of shia militias. These volunteers, as Mr Bayati prefers to call them, are critical to Baghdad’s fight against ISIL. But there are inevitable problems. They have been widely blamed for abuses and for the inflammation of the sectarian tensions that pushed the sunni community to support ISIL in the first place.  The Iraqi military is able to exert only tenuous control. “They are not necessarily well-trained, and yes, they will make mistakes,” Mr Bayati says.  “But if they are not used, then ISIL will control the whole of Iraq.”

The use of the death penalty, reinstated in 2004, is another controversial area. A recent United Nations report said that death sentences have been passed based on evidence from disputed confessions or secret informants, and that some defendants saw a defence attorney for the first time only when they arrived in court.  The Iraqi government says it is unfair to expect the same standards of due process from a country that is, effectively, in a state of civil war. It is also, Mr Bayati says, a deterrent to any foreign fighters heading to Iraq: “If they hear the news that we have stopped the death penalty, the whole world will come to Iraq to fight,” he said. Furthermore, when asked about an amnesty for ISIL fighters on death row Mr Bayati is uncompromising, perhaps because he has a domestic audience to consider: “How about an amnesty for all those already put in their graves by terrorists?” he said. “There are thousands of orphans, and many MPs and officials killed. These people should have a day in court too.”

Choices and dilemmas. Buy the girl? Use the militia? Reinstate the death penalty? It is extremely hard to bring an unwavering moral line to these issues. Much discourse in the western world is couched in zero-sum absolutism as politicians take ethical lumps out of each other, spurred on by an increasingly uncompromising public. If only the choices were that easy.