“Words”, Steven Poole, the British author and journalist, said in his 2006 book on the abuse of English Language, “are weapons.” This sentence was actually the subtitle of the book whose title was UNSPEAK.
Poole defined “unspeak” as a way of naming and framing an issue such as to put the other side on the defensive and make its position look untenable. So, contrary to George Orwell’s well-known dictum that politicians’ words are not to be taken seriously because all too often they never mean what they say, Poole argues that it is precisely because they hardly ever mean what they say that their words should be taken very seriously.
In his introduction to the book, he quotes one Language expert approvingly as saying “People are forever quoting Talleyrand that language is only there to hide the thought of a diplomat (or for that matter of any other shrewd and dubious person). But in fact the very opposite is true. Whatever it is that people are determined to hide, be it from others, or from themselves, even things they carry around unconsciously – language reveals all.”
In other words, not even the most expert use of euphemism or any figure of speech can hide what one truly means, if only it is paid close enough attention.
Whatever differences there are between Poole and Orwell on the English Language and Politics, they both agree on the fact that words are indeed weapons however you chose to use them. Which is why it is important that, politician or not, we mind our language, especially when, as in two recent cases that have stirred controversy, it is hard, if not impossible, for the speaker to deny that he meant what he said.
The first was when a video first posted on the internet on November 12 showed the otherwise gentle governor of the relatively peaceful Katsina State, Barrister Ibrahim Shema, likening opposition politicians to “cockroaches” whose lot, therefore, is only to be crushed.
The governor’s words have since provoked criticisms from inside and outside the country. In turn, he has said he never meant to liken anyone to a cockroach much less urge his audience to crush them. His denial has been rather unconvincing giving the fact that, though pictures can lie, this particular one did not seem to have done so.
The second case happened in far away Britain. This time it was David Mellor, a lawyer like Shema, and a former British cabinet minister. In his case he called a black-cab driver a “sweaty, stupid little shit” during an argument about the route the taxi driver wanted to take after picking him and his partner, Lady Cobham, from her investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace.
He told the cab driver: “You’ve been driving a cab for 10 years, I’ve been in the cabinet, I’m an award-winning broadcaster, I’m a Queen’s Counsel. You think that your experiences are anything compared to mine?”
He then told the driver to “f..k off” and threatened to mention the incident in a popular radio talk show he hosts the following day. He kept his word.
But rather than further disparage the cab driver, he surprised his audience when he apologised profusely for what he had done.
“I can’t think what possessed me to lose it with that cabbie the way I did,” he said. “OK, I had a case, but I threw it away by the way I spoke and I’m really, really sorry about that, and I especially want to apologise to you, our listeners, for trying your patience and risking my own credibility with you by speaking the way I did.”
In addition he pledged to make a donation to a charity sponsored by the taxi drivers’ union.
Surprisingly, the public seemed unforgiving. Among the newspapers that carried the story was the London Guardian of November 29. There were over 400 reactions to the story. Less than a dozen said the former cabinet minister meant his apology. The overwhelming majority said he only apologised because he found out the cab driver had taped the incident.
“I’m really, really, really, really sorry – I got caught,” said one apparently unforgiving reader who typified the reactions.
Whether he was sincere in his apology or not, I thought this was how Shema should have reacted to what I believe he never meant to say, given his temperate nature. Clearly the man simply got carried away by the heat and emotions of those moments and spoke words that elsewhere would have derailed a political career, at the least.
What the video caught him saying cannot be unsaid. The only way out therefore is to own up and tell the good people of Katsina State that he was really, really, sorry.
Unlike with Mellor, I suspect the Katsinawa will believe him and forgive him. After all, whatever his shortcomings, he has done well by them in his eight years as governor. If nothing else he is almost unique as a governor who made sure he completed all the projects of his predecessor before he started his own, even though the two were not exactly the best of friends. Besides, the state has been one of the most peaceful and secure in the country.
Your Excellency, the future, as a Hausa dictum says, is longer than the past. You should not let an inadvertent slip of tongue ruin the bright future your past suggests you have before you.
Re: The manipulation of Boko Haram
Your piece on the above subject last week was a master piece, and, as are most of your write ups, well documented.
My headache here, however, is, could it have been possible for this nonsense being visited on the North since 1999 under Obasanjo Presidency to date be sustained without the strong support of these powerful so called ‘Yan Arewa’? Why is it that all the so called powerful institutions & NGOs in the North like the Elders forums, the JNI, all these so called powerful emirs and the so called powerful retired generals, politicians, academicians, the media guru etc, have never called for peoples action until the arrival of Emir Sanusi? Why is it that nobody is calling for northern peoples’ revolt? Can this nonsense be tolerated in any other part of the country for this long? Definitely not in the South West or any part of the Southern Nigeria.
I am so embarrassed to think that a shoeless, classless and clueless guy can subject such a people coming from a rich historical background to such manipulations with their eyes open.
Or is Allah actually punishing the North for the general malaise and the sins of some of their prominent rulers, leaders and citizens who have, overtime, allegedly indulged in unprintable anti-Allah practices like, shirk, zhinah and, wait for it, homosexuality/lesbianism?
Muhammad ibn Umar.
Emir Sanusi has called us to rise up to the challenge posed by Boko Haram. It is a wise decision coming from an intelligent person and when you look at the scenario properly one is left with no other option than to conclude that it was a wise statement. After all, when the matador waves a red flag at the bull he more often than not ends up slaying it with his sword. In this case, the fear of a raging bull is overrated.
An ordinary man on the streets in Kano believes strongly that government has failed in its responsibility of protecting lives and property of its citizens. And that the government’s indifference stemmed from hatred, politics and religious differences.
How can you explain the many checkpoints around town but still people are being killed every day.
Ibrahim Auwal Kano.
“…Lynch them to death”? Lynch them will suffice.
You are right, I committed a tautology by saying “…lynch them to death.” The common dictionary meaning of the word is “to seize somebody believed to have committed a crime and put him or her to death immediately and without trial, usually by hanging.”
In paragraph 19 of last week’s column you wrote “Sadly… it never agreed to any SEIZE fire with anyone.” I think the correct word is CEASE fire, which refers to stopping, cessation or suspension of hostilities between the two warring parties. SEIZE refers more to taking hold of, control or even confiscating. The two words may be synonyms, but I think in the context of especially that paragraph, the word CEASE is more appropriate.
Secondly, please I hope you will find time to enlighten us more so that we have clear perspectives about Vice President Namadi Sambo’s effort to exonerate northern Nigeria Muslims holding key positions in this government regarding their obviously ineffectual role in curbing the on-going decimation of their place of origin.
You are a full member of Boko Haram.