Misuse of language might kill

Opinion

Sirikit Syah

When Confusius or Konghucu (1551-479 SM) was asked: “What would you do the first time, if you are elected as a country leader?”, he answered: “To correct the use of language, of course.” His friends did not expect such answer, so he explained: “If language is not correctly used, what you say is not actually what you mean. If what you say is not what you mean, what should be done is not done. If what should be done is not done, morale and art decline. If moral and art decline, justice has no direction. If justice has no direction, people will stay confused and helpless. So, you have to be very careful of what you say. There shall not be any manipulation of language.”

The bottom line of that anecdote is: language is so important, not only for daily communication, but –as Confusius said to the furthest extreme: also for running a country. Nowadays, proper language is vital for international communication, as well as for information carried by mass media.

The case of people killing people caused by the use or misuse of language is enormous. In Kalimantan, people calling ‘Lazy Dayak’ or ‘Dirty Madurese’ or ‘Stupid Malay’ had inflicted a racial clash that killed thousands of people in 1999-2000. In Maluku, a deadly fight between two persons that was labeled as ‘religious-based conflict’ had led to a real religious clash of Christians and Muslims that continued for years and spread to other islands in Indonesia (Sulawesi, in the latest case).

In 2002, 200 people killed and dozens of building destroyed. It was because somebody wrote in an article published by ‘Today’ newspaper: “If Prophet Mohammad was here today, he might have chosen one of the beauty queens for his wife.” The article was a criticism to the opposition of Nigerian people –predominatly Muslims- who were against the ‘Miss World’ beauty contest held in their country. Despite the opposition, the government held the event. As if that was not enough to hurt the Muslims’ feeling, the insensitive writer offended them, fatally, by mocking at Prophet Mohammad (the writer must not be Muslim, since he did not know that the Prophet never married a woman because of the way she looked). The anger turned into destruction.

So, in short: misuse of language can create war. It can even kill. And yet, the wisdom of Confusius the philosopher doesn’t seem to be learned by the world leaders and the media today.

Early last year, CNN apologized to President Iran Ahmadinejad, for mistranslating his speech. Ahmadinejad said in a press conference using Persian language, about his program of ‘nuclear technology’. CNN reported it as ‘nuclear weapon’ program. Imagine how different the meaning was and how fatal it was to Iran. And that mistake was reported in CNN International, CNN in the US, and CNN.com. We know what has happened after that: Iran was attacked by the UN and by many countries because of his ‘nuclear weapon’ project (in fact, it was ‘nuclear technology’).

Recently, Britain’s Channel 4 News reported that the Israeli military was targeting
‘militants’ in Gaza and the Hamas ‘infrastructure’. The BBC, which is usually considered neutral in Middle East reporting, also described a ‘clash’ between ‘militants’ and the Israeli F-16 aircraft.

John Pilger, an independent writer, who frequently visits the area, wrote: “Consider one such clash. The militants’ car was blown to pieces by a missile from a fighter-bomber. Who were these militants? In my experience, all the people of Gaza are militant in their resistance to their jailer and tormentor.”

Pilger also noted that what the British media (and other western media) referred to as ‘Hamas infrastructure’ was actually the headquarters of the legitimate party that won last year’s democratic elections in Palestine.

So, if you watch Channel 4 News in the UK or Fox News in the US, you might see old people, women, and children in targeted cars, while the reporter or presenter uttering the words ‘militants’, as if those harmless and helpless people are the militants.

In fact, under international law, occupied people have the right to use arms
against the occupier’s forces. This right is missing in media reports. The frequent mentioning of “endless war” to refer Israel-Palestine case also suggests that both parties are equal. In fact, there is no war in Palestine. There is only resistance among the poorest most vulnerable people on earth to an enduring, illegal occupation imposed by the world’s fourth largest military power, whose weapons of mass destruction range from cluster bombs to thermonuclear devices (Pilger).

John Pilger is just one of quite a number of writers who bother to point out the misuse of language in the media, as it was started by linguist Noam Chomsky in the 80s. Chomksy has written many books on conspiracy of the media and the western leaders in shaping news and public opinion, among others ‘Manufacturing Consent’ and ‘International Terrorism’. Chomsky was the one to point out that the media use the term ‘terrorists’ to teenagers throwing stones at Israeli soldiers, while they use the term ‘pre-emptive actions’ for the bombardments of houses by Israeli tanks. The terms are imposed by the Israeli, of course, but the media should know better. The media has the power to choose. Christian Science Monitor, Boston-based international newspaper, refuses to use the word ‘insurgents’ for members of resistance movement in Iraq, for instance.

Some wars in this world were inflicted by misuse of language, or by insensitivity towards each other. We are reminded to the wisdom of the Chinese philosopher. If you are in charge, language is one important thing to be paid attention. It’s not only war. In some countries, deliberate misuse of language has created manipulation or corruption that leads to the devastation of the people.

We shall be grateful that there some people out there still pay attention to our use of language. Confusius, Noam Chomsky, John Pilger, Christian Science Monitor, may do a little thing but that is crucial to help keeping the world in peace.

Sirikit Syah
July 2007

Perihal LKM Media Watch
Mass media are watchdogs. But who watch the media? Let's do it together. Watch this very powerful entity, for better journalism, better Indonesia, better world. http://www.sirikitsyah.wordpress.com

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