The danger of verbal violence

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
July 12, 2021

Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeI don’t know how the acidic squabble between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition will end, but I know that verbal violence can have as much devastating consequences as physical violence.

Two of our most prominent leaders cannot be at each other’s throats every day, with their hate-filled language poisoning the national blood stream.

On August 31, 1962, Eric Williams, our first prime minister, addressed the nation, asking, “What use will you make of your Independence? What will you transmit to your children five years from today? Other countries ceased to exist in that period. Some, in much less time, have become totally disorganised, a prey to anarchy and civil war.”

He also spoke of the joint responsibility of our parliamentarians and citizens to conduct our discourses in a civil manner. He said: “The ordinary citizen must recognise the role of the Parliament in our democracy and must learn to differentiate between a Member of Parliament, whom he may like or dislike, and the respect that must be accorded to that same Member of Parliament ex-officio. I call on all citizens from now on to accord the highest respect to our parliamentary system and institutions and to our Parliament itself.”

In laying the nation’s foundation, Williams emphasised the sanctity of “the word”. He took his lead from the Apostle John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In Williams’s way of seeing, “the word” and its careful use are not incidental to constructing a democratic state.

Our politicians should consider the impact that their verbal violence has on the psychological state of our nation, particularly on the young people whom we blame for all the evils in the nation. To steal a line from Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, our leaders do not understand: “Young people are the foundation for all of today’s suffering Russia, her only hope.” We only have to replace the word Russia with T&T to understand the grievous harm we inflict on our children and young people when we pour poisonous language into their consciousness.

Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst, argued that “the unconscious is structured like a language”, by which he meant verbal speech and written texts are all signifying systems that are constitutive of an individual’s psychoanalytical experience. They also contribute significantly to the formation of the psychology of a people. It is through these media that nations begin to know and to recognise themselves.

The Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister are going down a dangerous road when the former describes the Prime Minister as a “vaccine vagrant… who operates as a conman”, and the latter retorts that her description of him “applies only to his clothes which are easily changed frequently” but his description of her “will be of the indelible variety which she wakes up with every morning” (Express, July 4).

Each nation has its foundational texts that guide their behaviour. America has Lincoln’s “Second Inaugural Address”, Britain has Churchill’s “Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat” speech. T&T has Williams’s “Message to the Youth of the Nation” and his “Independence Address”. Each citizen should know these speeches by heart.

When I attended primary school in Tacarigua, the teachers filled the walls with proverbs and memorable verses meant to advise and inspire. One Arabian proverb remained with me. It read: “There are four things come not back—the spoken word, the sped arrow, the past life, and the neglected opportunity.”

William Wordsworth, “My Heart Leaps Up”, has also remained in my memory as a guiding star. It reads:

“My heart leaps up when I behold / A rainbow in the sky: / So was it when my life began; / So is it now I am a man / So be it when I shall grow old, / Or let me die! / The Child is father of the Man; / And I could wish my days to be / Bound each to each by natural piety.”

The “natural piety” of which Wordsworth speaks reflects the elation that he experienced when he saw the beauty of the rainbow. Some people have described ours as a rainbow nation, in testimony of the varied races and people who live in our country. This sentiment is recognised in “God Bless Our Nation”, our national song. Every word and action must be directed towards keeping the nation together rather than pulling it apart.

Now that T&T is coming out of a pandemic, it will face many challenges. Sobriety and common sense should be fundamental principles to guide us. As we strive to construct a new day, strident speech and personal animosities demeaning others do not seem to be the way to go. Language is never innocent. It is always filled with meaning that goes beyond the immediate “cutting down” of those it is designed to affect.

Sometimes we are deluded into believing that bad speech acts are pointed only at the individual. Ultimately, such insults are directed at the entire community that each politician represents. Kamla Persad-Bissessar cannot insult Rowley and feel that she is only insulting him. The same is true for Rowley. In the process, they insult each other’s community; therein lies the danger of harmful speech.

Williams ended his Independence Address with reference to Corinthians 15:10: “By the grace of God we as a people are what we are, and His Grace in us hath not been void.”

Let us not destroy our nation through harmful words and hate-filled polemics. In the words of Majorie Padmore: “God bless our leaders / Give them the grace to guide / Bestow on them thy judgment wise /To rule our land aright.”

12 thoughts on “The danger of verbal violence”

  1. In a very appealing article, Selwyn writes about verbal violence, he opines, “Let us not destroy our nation through harmful words and hate-filled polemics”. It is a noble sentiment, in the real world we would love to have those sentiments achieved. The problem is those ideals come up against the harsh reality of those who are willing to create dystopias where chaos and inhumanity reigns because in those hellscapes, they prosper and thrive. Political language has gotten much more violent with the advent of Donald Trump on the political scene in America. I think that can said without much dissent. Politics itself seems to have undergone a change where as they say disagreement has become disagreeable. The political divide itself has become poisonous where partisan camps face each other with seething hatred and rancor and the whole world seems to be getting infected. Another pandemic, we may surmise, to add to the travails of Covid. But what is the cause of this political pandemic? Where does this virus come from? The principal of a school on dealing with two students who are fighting, does not expel both of them or send them both to detention without finding out what’s going on, who started it and why. “Both-sideism” does not get to the root of things, it is an inherently unjust way of dealing with issues of conflict. You have to investigate, find out what happened first. Then maybe after examining things you may find both students, or one of them, maybe even none of them, guilty of causing the violence. But you have to investigate. Selwyn makes this mistake, he has not investigated the verbal violence; he trots out a “both-sideism”, so he does not get to the cause, in which case he cannot get to a solution. Its science, cause-effect. The UNC has been using verbal violence as a tool recently to incite the population. If you don’t believe me, observe them, observe the language. And it’s not only the language, it’s the way it’s delivered. I think Wade Mark is going to strain his face one of these days and turn into a gargoyle when he is speaking (verbal violence or Trini fatigue?). Persad-Bissessar describes the Prime Minister as looking as a vagrant, PM Rowley replies that this description “applies only to his clothes which are easily changed frequently”, but his description of her “will be of the indelible variety which she wakes up with every morning”. I don’t see the equivalence in terms of verbal violence. Persad-Bissessar describes him as a vagrant, it is meant to be demeaning, to conjure up a picture of worthlessness. Rowley’s response is a deep one, a philosophical one, it reminds us that you don’t judge a person by the clothes that he is wearing, but by what is inside and can’t be changed, his or her character. What is wrong with that, it deep, it’s wise. Isn’t that – don’t judge someone by the way they look but by the content of their character? So I think Persad-Bissessar’s words are meant to be demeaning, Rowley’s words are philosophical, wise. To demean is to use words as violence, to be wise is to use words as a means of teaching, to try to uplift.
    Henry Giroux, a scholar of critical pedagogy and cultural studies, argues in his book, “The Terror of the Unforeseen”, that Trump uses neither storm troopers nor gas chambers to bring about his version of fascism, he uses instead divisive language and violent language, language that is itself a proxy for violent action. The language presents a preview of violence and makes that violence more real as it is brought into the imagination, it conjures up the violence as a real possibility. How do we understand this? Language was thought to reflect reality, there is a reality out there and words are used to transpose that reality into a medium that is separate and has an independent existence. Language therefore can be used as a picture of reality. But then the postmodernists came along and claimed that there is no reality out there, language and words themselves create the reality out there. Words do not reflect reality, they create reality. This is where Trump comes in. In my opinion, Trump is using that idea, that there is no truth out there; truth is what he says it is. If he says he won the Presidential elections, then that is the truth. There is no independent existence of facts out there that can confirm your words; truth is what you say it is. But then here is the rub, everybody can claim to have the truth, and that is where the violence comes in. The truth is legitimized by those who can triumph by the strength of their will, by the violence and intensity of their will. That of course is fascism, or what occurs in fascism, and that is the political virus that seems to have become a pandemic, infecting the politics in many parts of the world. We have had an example close to us recently. As Henry Giroux says, it starts with language. So let’s be on the lookout for those who want to replace democracy by force, violence, coups and assassinations and keep in mind the advice of Giroux, it starts with language. Observe for yourselves, as you sit in Trenchtown observing the hypocrites, as the Caribbean’s great philosopher Bob Marley said, “Don’t worry, everything’s going to be allright”.

    1. This is a fair criticism. Perhaps, I needed to pay greater attention to the cause and what led to the violent expression of both. I thank you for bringing this to my attention. I’d be more careful in the future.

      1. Dr. Cudjoe…your betrayal for whatever the reason is painful! I still have a copy of your book “African Trinbagonians, no longer blinded by our eyes”…Two decades later …why?

        Back then they (UNC) in government had threatened your mother…Remember what baksh did? Why???…
        Is it extortion? You can tell us…

  2. The Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister are going down a dangerous road when the former describes the Prime Minister as a “vaccine vagrant… who operates as a conman”, and the latter retorts that her description of him “applies only to his clothes which are easily changed frequently” but his description of her “will be of the indelible variety which she wakes up with every morning” (Express, July 4).

    Kamla is a highly intelligent woman but at times she goes down this pathway which is unnecessary. But to contextualize her comment it may have stemmed from the recently concluded Tobago debate. A debate where the arrogance and disdain for democracy was manifested by the PNM. Further Rowley attacked the Guyanese on their vaccine program that saw over 50% vaccinate compared to 18% in TnT. One must view these comments as an ongoing battle or as Panday used to say struggle for our democracy.

    Kamla in the heat of the last election campaign called Rowley a blank man. This was shortly after Emancipation day, were emotions ran high. And the bias of the media in favour of the government was strong. Rowley took the blank and turned it into black man and use race to fuel his campaign. Nothing wrong with black man, but the Rowley used it to appeal to his already racist masses. Doesn’t take much for them to ignore his horrible economic track record.

    The UNC needs to understand that black folks are very emotional people. When Kamla let Rodney Charles ran her return to power campaign. He did the “spin the wheel” attacking Rowley knowing that black folks will get annoyed and black women in particular will get enraged. The psychology of politics and political campaigns is a two weeks affair. You win or lose in that 2 weeks. Stay away from name calling understand black sensitivities.

    1. Mamoo doesn’t have emotions…his aryan brahmin genes are apparently immune….Just like nazis.

      1. Inconvenient:

        As a proud Negro — (in the original emotionally neutral sense meaning one of the same race/root of the king, David; I reject the Islamic and gentile inspired idea that “negro” in itself is a term of derogation) — I am glad to be well able to summon up the yes, emotion, of righteous INDIGNATION.

        King David was well able to do the same. Which is at least one of the reasons why he was the “apple of the most High’s eye”. That is why little shepherd-boy David was able to slay Goliath, all praise to the most High.

        They are feeling the heat. Keep it up!

        We shall slay that Goliath that presumes to want to enslave the Negro here in our own Israelite land of Iere — actually IYERE — a word of Hebrew origin meaning among other things the land of Providence. This is Israelite — therefore Negro — promised land. The erstwhile Arawak were our kinfolk, and the KaliNAGO (Carib) are pumpkin-vine relations (we are NAGO people, the Carib are kali-NAGO, i.e. related to the NAGO people but from outside the tent, literally).

        This place, IYE-RE, also “TRINIDAD” (so named by Columbus, again, after the most High, IYE-HAWAH) is special unto the most High.

        The affliction shall not arise a second time (Nahum 1:9), the Indian Policy notwithstanding. The miscreants will evidently not relent, and will learn the hard way, like Goliath, what happens to those that go against His anointed.

        Shalom.

        1 Samuel 17:26. “And David spake to the men that stood by him, saying, What shall be done to the man that killeth this Philistine, and taketh away the reproach from Israel? for who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?

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