The Power of Our Words
"No need to heed your voice when I can talk about you better than you can speak about yourself. No need to hear your voice, only tell me about your pain. I want to know your story, and then I will tell it back to you in a new way. Tell it back to you in such a way that it has become my own. Re-writing you, I rewrite myself anew. I am still author, authority. I am still coloniser, the speaking subject, and you are now at the centre of my tale." -Bell hooks
The use of our language can be inherently subjective and contentious within any environment and subject of focus. In fact, the very name of this website poses many complex and controversial discussion points surrounding the definition and use of the term ‘privilege’, as well as what the act of ‘good’ really entails. How we use our language determines not only our sentiments and viewpoint towards a particular subject but can also convey many harmful consequences if we do not utilise it effectively.
While society continues to progress through the development of constructive debates and discussions surrounding societal ethics and our moral compasses, many destructive aspects continue within our society that are deeply embedded within each of our subconsciouses.
It is hard to deny that we live within a hierarchical racially persuaded system that has been established to favour and preserve the ‘elite’ when we have descriptive words such as the ‘third world’, ‘first world’, and the ongoing need to ‘save’ a community from injustices. The development dialogue measures and assesses poverty through a constructed lens that limits its ability to see beyond a contrived perspective and narrative.
Such words have been socially constructed to label one group from another, and in return, create divisive rhetoric that positions a dominant group over another. These choices of language are so deeply embedded within our thought processes, that they have become hidden within our subconscious. Unknowingly, these descriptive words and labels that are used in the context of development and discussions centred around marginalised groups, become tactical in the preservation of colonial ideologies and thought processes. By continuing to use such limited labels, we are continuing to harbour a destructive and divisive narrative.
Systemic racism is embedded within the fundamental structures of our language, and it continues to determine those who ‘thrive’ and those who must continuously ‘catch up’ to the rest. The unspoken truth of this common and divisive narrative is something that needs to be urgently addressed and critically analysed by each and every person who engages with these choices of words. It is crucial that individuals begin to recognise these destructive terminologies and understand the power that these words hold in maintaining a separation which continues to determine a perceived ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ within our world.
Within the discourse of development and issues relating to marginalised groups, the narratives that are centred around poverty are utilised as a tool to describe reasons for their suffering; yet neglect to comprehend the full perspective of these lived experiences. Consequently, when not effectively used to represent all individuals effectively, these narratives reveal the fundamentally ignorant values and beliefs supported by their story tellers.
Renowned political philosopher Frantz Fanon describes Western society as being one of a racist culture. Such a culture normalises racism and supremacist tendencies that continue the upkeep of colonialist, Eurocentric power throughout the world. Such values become familiar within our normality and structured ways of thinking. This is then further reinforced within all facets of society, ultimately becoming invisible and unrecognisable by those who do not enable themselves to think critically.
As a result, these common societal values and dialogues continue to deceive us and blind the majority from the racism within each of our own thoughts, values, and systems. Fanon highlights that if such values are left unexamined, these social constructions lead consequently, to racist explanations and phenomena by the West. Fanon describes such racist explanations as linking and attaching constructed values and characteristics to a specific group within society. In doing so, bias hierarchies are automatically established, favouring those who benefit from the colonial narrative; further pitting them against the colonised minorities. As a subsequence, constructed weaknesses are projected onto a selected group of people, imposing a further contrived explanation into their disadvantages.
Fanon highlights examples of such a practice by the West with the use of descriptive words such as ‘alcoholism’ to explain a flaw within marginalised individuals who drink, rather than acknowledging and recognising it as a result from constructed social conditions and oppression forced upon them, often as a consequence of colonial influences and systems.
Through language and the preservation of dominant, colonial systems and structures, the West has developed a strong criteria to determine what wisdom and intelligence is valued and revered. As a result, Fanon argues the value and worth that is monitored by the West is deeply rooted in racism and prejudiced values, and as a consequence, the West is limited in its recognition of other wisdoms throughout the world. Western dominance is easily enabled through its sciences and knowledge. The colonial paradigm continues to set the standard in value and worth, and distinguishes those who are 'civilised' from the 'uncivilised'.
Fanon suggests the West can obtain such dominance through its ability to generate and develop knowledge and theory so easily and freely without having the struggle of accessing basic survival needs. In comparison, those who are limited in their representation do not have the accessibility or ability to voice their theory and knowledge into the world as liberally. This is a result of West limiting their abilities through the preservation of colonial systems, which additionally force such communities to continue to struggle to meet daily needs.
Mawuna Remarque Koutonin reflects Fanon’s arguments surrounding the inherent racist ideologies embedded within society. In her 2015 article titled “Why Are White People Expats When The Rest Of Us Are Immigrants?” , Koutonin highlights the disparate language and descriptions used for those who are white, and for the rest of the world. Koutonin emphasises the need for political and sociological deconstruction of our racist thought patterns. She gives the example:
“Africans are immigrants. Arabs are immigrants. Asians are immigrants. However, Europeans are expats because they can’t be at the same level as other ethnicities. They are superior. Immigrants is a term set aside for ‘inferior races’.”
Labels are superimposed on individuals; they carelessly pity and diminish a group of people and lessen them to nothing more than the struggles they face. Through such actions, labelled groups have the potential to internalise these definitions, furthering the detriment and oppression imposed upon them by those who have automatically characterized them. Through these socially constructed biases, marginalised groups are limited in their ability to express their own agency effectively. Those who are colonised must follow the rigid criteria and explanations developed by the colonisers and continue to be systematically confined within a particular narrative.
Something we hear quite often in discussions surrounding those who face poverty, is centred around the idea of those who are at ‘risk’. Communities who are at risk of poverty, climate catastrophes, economic struggles, exploitation, and corruption. Yet, this description neglects to further acknowledge the reasons for such societal conflict and disruption. It neglects to consider the impact and destruction of colonialism and the ramifications of its presence in almost every corner of the world. It disregards the recognition that the risk of these potential hazards has been forced upon them as a result of this unwelcomed presence.
The commonly shared descriptive terms used to categorise those who are more economically advantaged over others, is divided between the phrases ‘First World’ and the ‘Third World’. To group people into these categories presents a multitude of problematic tendencies and continues to benefit the development of those from colonial and Western powers. To catalogue a group of people and to further imply they are from differing worlds is inherently offensive and destructive. To determine a status of people through a rating system, automatically implies a hierarchical value within the world. Through the suggestion that there is a 'first' and 'third' world, with no recognition of a 'second', additionally separates a group of people; and further emphasises that one is greater than the other. This divisive use of language and categorisation inevitably separates ‘us’ from ‘them’ and encourages the preservation of colonial thought processes and systems.
In addition to this, are other terms that have been used within the development field as an alternative for these divisive labels and descriptive terms. ‘Developed’ and ‘developing’ are a common alternative used for those facing greater inequalities than others. In addition, the ‘Global North’ and the ‘Global South’ are also popular terms adopted by larger humanitarian and human rights institutions and organisations. While each of these terms are less problematic than the negative narrative that is perpetuated from others, it is important to remember that every label has its problems. The use of the terminology ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ still implies a hierarchy between nations and groups of people. In addition, it automatically sets an assumed universal standard for what ‘developed’ should be perceived and desired to be. Such an expectation, continues to revere the West and colonial influences at the top of the hierarchy and further accepts that those who are categorised as ‘developed’ have reached their capacity in developing and therefore, set the expectation for all nations. Each label categorises and lumps nations into categories and definitions, and in doing so, neglects to consider and appreciate the diversity and strength that come with each individual nation and community. And further refuses to acknowledge the differences in development for each individual nation and community, and to recognise that each process should not be regimented into a particular framework or ideal.
Andrea Cornwall and Karen Brock also describe the concept of development ‘buzzwords’; words that give development practices and discussions a ‘sense of purposefulness and optimism’. Both Cornwall and Brock argue that terms used in the context of development are never neutral yet pay a crucial role in justifying actions, as well as influencing and framing those involved. Within their research paper, Cornwall and Brock highlight:
“Poverty reduction, participation and empowerment are feel-good terms: they connote warm and nice things, conferring on their users that goodness and rightness that development agencies need to assert in order to assume the legitimacy to intervene in the lives of others.”
Similarly, Hugo Slim describes language used in relation to development as involving both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ grammar. Bad grammar is explained by Slim to involve sentences that place one person in power over another. Such an example given by Slim involves those actively engaging in humanitarian work as describing themselves as the ‘helper’, that situates those being ‘helped’ as the object in need of ‘saving’. Through these uses of language, values of saviourism are enforced and those on the receiving end of such ‘help’ are perceived as ‘helpless’ and incapable of their own autonomous growth. Within his book ‘Humanitarian Ethics: A Guide to the Morality of Aid in War and Disaster’, Slim suggests:
“A better grammar of aid is “I work with people who are surviving or recovering”. In this sentence, survivors and humanitarians are both active subjects and humanitarian workers operate only prepositionally—always acting with, for or beside people, but never on or over people in a power dynamic that has people as the mere objects of their actions”.
Through these examples it is clear how evident the disproportionate use of our language and terminology can be. And as a consequence, how destructive and divisive this can be in the continuation and upkeep of colonial, supremacist ideology. In the context of any discussion that involves another group of people, it is essential for each individual to be represented, valued and respected as equal. It is essential for people to begin to recognise their use of language and to be conscious and critical of the terminology that is used. Any rhetoric that is used to describe a nation or group of people that is different from our own, must fundamentally strive to unify and respect.
Our narrative must be centred around celebrating differences and acknowledging diversity, while simultaneously recognising the destructiveness and power within forces and systems such as colonial ideologies and dominant Western frameworks. We must begin to reject our subconscious racist thought patterns, unlearn what is comfortable and relearn a new dialogue that is inclusive, representative, and just for all; enabling us all to the same ability to be autonomous over our own lives.