Words Matter, Even When Politicians Say Otherwise

To say that someone is a “child rapist,” in a country where about 55 girls are raped every day and where a minor is murdered every three days, is a description designed to evoke the worst possible reaction in the listener. There is no doubt about that, no matter which rhetorical and linguistic stunts are employed to make light of the responsibility for what has been said.

To say that migrants and refugees “infest our country,” in a country that has deep racial resentment and xenophobia, is to invite the dehumanization of those who are different. Therein lie the roots of a very particular type of violence.

To say that a journalist who raises critical questions is an “enemy of the people,” an ally of criminals, or a salesman, is an attempt to discredit what has been said without studying its context, to appeal to hatred and to continue to fuel citizens’ distrust of the press.

These three situations, which occurred in Colombia, the United States and many other countries, show a trend that is leading us to the destruction of democratic societies and laying the groundwork for the case where resentment will be the only currency that is used in political debate. We must do something immediately to intervene in this crisis.

In her book “The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump,” Michiko Kakutani writes: “As Hannah Arendt wrote in her 1951 book, ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism,’ ‘The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.’”

In other words, citizens and politicians who believe that “truth” does not exist and that words mean what they intend them to mean are destroying us, eliminating the possibility of engaging in dialogue and making us easy prey for manipulation.

Pope Francis said, “There is no such thing as harmless disinformation,” warning of potentially atrocious consequences. In order not to fall into that trap, we need to recognize that there are verifiable facts, that words have delimited meanings and that they do matter.

The person who called a journalist a “child rapist,” postured proudly, arguing that, of course, he was not referring to a sexual act, but to other violations of children’s rights. We naïvely misunderstood, he suggests. But that is the same strategy that invites the “anything goes” reasoning, promotes “alternative facts” and uses hypocrisy as a discursive tool. It is employed in politics because it appeals to the tribal biases that divide us, but it also affects the foundations of a society that must be found among its differences. If we no longer have a common language to understand each other, there is only confusion and, of course, irrational anger.

There are no exclusive culprits. The Colombian political debate is plagued (note the use of that particular word, which could well be replaced by “infested”) with adjectives that do not point to ideas, but instead are intended to destroy the other and question the “truth.” Everything is subject to interpretation and everything is a performance in search of rejection or applause. And Colombia, that complex concept that needs the contribution of all its citizens to exist and be able to materialize? It is lost in this semantic crisis.

Kakutani cautions “never to equate victim with aggressor, never to create a false moral or factual equivalence, because then you are an accomplice to the most unspeakable crimes and consequences. I believe in being truthful, not neutral. And I believe we must stop banalising the truth.”*

*Editor’s note: This quote is found in Michiko Kakutani’s book “The Death of Truth,” taken from Christiane Amanpour’s speech on press freedom during the 2016 presidential election.

About this publication

About Patricia Simoni 79 Articles
I first edited and translated for Watching America from 2009 through 2011, recently returning and rediscovering the pleasure of working with dedicated translators and editors. Latin America is of special interest to me. In the mid-60’s, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Chile, and later lived for three years in Mexico, in the states of Oaxaca and Michoacán and in Mexico City. During those years, my work included interviewing in anthropology research, teaching at a bilingual school in the federal district, and conducting workshops in home nursing care for disadvantaged inner city women. I earned a BS degree from Wagner College, masters and doctoral degrees from WVU, and was a faculty member of the WVU School of Nursing for 27 years. In that position, I coordinated a two-year federal grant (FIPSE) at WVU for an exchange of nursing students with the University of Guanajuato, Mexico. Presently a retiree, I live in Morgantown, West Virginia, where I enjoy traditional Appalachian fiddling with friends. Working toward the mission of WA, to help those in the U.S. see ourselves as others see us, gives me a sense of purpose.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply