JEAN-PAUL Sartre named his short and animating autobiography The Words. Winston Churchill mobilised the English language and sent it into battle to steady the faltering nerves of his fellow countrymen. With one’s choice of words one can win hearts and minds, deliver blows, terrorise, conceal intentions, adorn beauty and mask ugliness.
Many a treasure has been unlocked with a verbal key. Early colonialists clothed their urge to conquer and exploit foreign lands and people in a fine silken shroud, presented as a noble cause in order to shed blood and ‘civilise the uncivilised’ people of Asia and Africa.
As an example, consider Churchill’s testimony before the Peel Commission, set up in 1937 to understand what had gone wrong in Palestine: “We committed ourselves to the idea [Balfour Declaration] that some day, somehow, far off in the future, subject to justice and economic convenience, there might well be a great Jewish state there, numbered by millions, far exceeding the present inhabitants of the country.”
Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful.
He went further, stating that, while the Arabs ought to be protected and that it was wrong for the Jews not to hire them, the Zionist project was something that was fundamentally progressive, enlightened and civilising.
The jugglery of words and phrases continues today, old phrases having given way to new ones.
The catchphrases currently in vogue include ‘free world’, ‘nation-building’, ‘human rights’, ‘international community’, ‘crimes against humanity’, ‘freedom of speech and expression’, ‘terrorism’, etc. Can anyone find fault with these words and phrases? They all sound great.
They give hope that the moral man has finally come of age and the world will be delivered from oppression, injustice and tyrannical rulers.
The statesmen of the world, mimicking Goebbels, use them so often they start to sound true. Day in and day out, the master writers of the free world artfully spin their stories.
Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful, to make murder respectable and to give solidity to the wind. When they say ‘the free world has decided to …’, it is never clear who exactly constitutes the free world — what and how many countries? Which are the countries that are not free, who have no right to speak and whose opinions do not matter?
The United Nations is a body that has seldom been able to unite its six permanent Security Council members, let alone the General Assembly. Its endorsements are bandied around only when they fall in line with the interests of the mighty. It can still be ignored while the ‘free world’ takes over to justify itself.
In the past, armadas sailed and armies marched to introduce their form of civilisation. Now, aircraft carriers and cruise missiles do the work of nation-building, bringing to these broken nations democracy, education, women’s and children’s rights, and civil liberties.
It is in the gaps between spoken words and real intentions that the emperor usually stands without his clothes, as was the case in the Afghanistan invasion. The real purpose today is not nation-building, but to defang the Taliban.
Human rights is a mantra, and Amnesty International is a great champion of these rights. It is worried about the torture of Ukrainians at the hands of Russia, but the tortures and abuses being perpetrated in India-held Kashmir do not find much mention in their reports.
The West would like to put Bashar al-Assad on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity, but Narendra Modi is a sacred cow. The logic is simple. India is a big and growing market where profits can be made; it is thus considered an emerging economic powerhouse.
The Guantanamo Bay detention camp, where prisoners are held outside the pale of the law, is a deep and ugly scar representing all that the US and a large part of the civilisation associated with it stand for. Nothing will wash clean the horrible torture that was committed there.
In 2001, the then Afghan ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, was detained in Pakistan and then sent to Guantanamo Bay.
He wrote, “One of the worst things was when the toilets became blocked. The smell of dirty water and faecal matter would blanket the whole block. We were not given toilet paper or water to clean ourselves after using the toilet ... our hands could be used but not washed afterwards. The prisoner had to use the same hands to eat his food afterward. This is how those who claim to defend human rights made us live.”
The world has not changed for millennia. Only the words and phrases, and the lips from which they escape, keep changing.
The writer is a former civil servant and minister.
Published in Dawn, November 11th, 2016