The importance of words

I have met individuals who openly use ‘rape’ for succeeding in a test and, much to my horror, as a joke.

Mehreen Kasana June 16, 2011
The importance of words

It was during my last year in high school that I heard the Nobel Lecture delivered by writer Toni Morrison. It was 33 minutes of unadulterated sagacity and bona fide concern for the structure and assertion of language that left me speechless, if not entirely circumvented by the unparalleled novelist. It would be unfair if I went further without sharing her sapient spiel: “There is and will be rousing language to keep citizens armed and arming; slaughtered and slaughtering in the malls, courthouses, post offices, playgrounds, bedrooms and boulevards; stirring, memorialising language to mask the pity and waste of needless death. There will be more diplomatic language to countenance rapetorture, assassination…. There will be more of the language of surveillance disguised as research; of politics and history calculated to render the suffering of millions mute; language glamourised to thrill the dissatisfied and bereft into assaulting their neighbours; arrogant pseudo-empirical language crafted to lock creative people into cages of inferiority and hopelessness.”

The systematic abuse of language in education and beyond is a disease that has taken monstrous form in Pakistan. We are raising children with an indisputable sense of superiority and bigotry against minorities and foreigners. What’s worse is the pervading maliciousness of the very same language and semantics against women and children.

I was invited to discuss the threats and tools of feminism online at Pakistan’s First International Social Media Summit (PSMS) in Karachi last week. Of course, it is imperative to maintain an online presence of feminist musings for the sake of women empowerment over the internet but it was evident that this can only be possible if and when we become cognisant of the power of language. They’re not just words.

I have met individuals who have openly used ‘rape’ as an alternative for succeeding in a test and, much to my horror, as a joke. It is during those moments one must question the very credibility and efficiency of our education system that claims to instill integrity and empathy in our students. The monetary investment in our course books yields zilch when a student still knows nothing concerning the impact of language and how words continue to trivialise the excruciating plight of a human being.

During the PSMS, someone asked me if it was possible to bring arevolution in this country. What, they asked, was required to alter the present downward spiral of events in the state? Someone next to them jested that the only requisite was God sending a miracle in every major city. That made me smile since it reminded me of the national habit we have: Hanging on to both extremes of a spectrum, never attempting to find a sense of nuance to solve a dilemma. It’s either blind love or blind hate, it’s either allowing events to obliterate lives and more lives or it’s expecting God to rip the sky open this coming Friday. It is never about seeking pragmatic solutions from the very comfort of one’s home.

That’s right: Home. If a revolution is indeed the need of the hour then the first unit that must be altered is where one eats and sleeps. That shift in the modus operandi then transcends to another massively ignored unit of our society: School. If he, I told him, really does desire a revolution in Pakistan then he must commence to understand the power of language and knowledge. “You mean we don’t need to go out on the streets?” I don’t think so, honestly.

“Underneath the eloquence, the glamour, the scholarly associations, however stirring or seductive, the heart of such language is languishing, or perhaps not beating at all…”.

I’d much rather revive the positive assertion of language in minds than haul bodies out in front of institutions that will, for all I can tell, never care.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 17th, 2011.


zindadilpakistan | 13 years ago | Reply I agree with the importance of languages and their correct usage. It's not only at the school level that languages must be taught properly, it has to be done at every level if we want to improve our literacy rate. Being an avid English newspapers reader I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I see sentences like 'drying room politics', 'his deed body', and of course mixing up of the genders are being merrily printed. I really wonder does the ever vigilant batch of editors of the newspapers really bother to read the content of what they clear for printing. I remember getting a job application from a gentleman who had done his Masters in English for a 'clerky position'.
Aisha A | 13 years ago | Reply @Sophia Husnain: I've never claimed to be a writer.
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