Today, I want to reflect on a handful of issues related to language, power and politics. I will only be able to scratch the surface of such a vast topic, and the blanks must be filled-in by each of us. We must learn to read between the lines when we listen; we must learn to keep quiet when we don’t know enough about a topic; we must learn to see gender and cultural biases; etc. In short, we must mind our language.

I have a friend who likes to say ‘we’ when he really should say ‘I’, and he usually does it in order to make his point stronger and less disputable. And ‘we’ just means his family, his upper-middle class compatriots and the rest of the old establishment he associates with in the capital, i.e., those who feel they have a special right to give orders and decide issues. I imagine the old British gentry would stroll about and speak like that; and probably also the colonial civilian and military administrators in days gone by. They never expected anyone to object to their orders and opinions, never mind whether they were right or wrong.

So, there are still leftovers from this way of speaking in Pakistan in the new millennium, with the behavior that goes with it, even amongst those who have travelled abroad and seen other things. They say it used to take a few generations to make a real gentleman; it may take even longer to make the upper classes realise that the world has changed and left them behind.

Language reflects reality, power and politics, and language is often part of maintaining existing structures. A good English accent and language command support it all.

In politics and many other spheres, we focus on topics based on conventions, what is ‘in’ and what makes us look good. We choose data and words to serve our purpose, not to be more truthful and find new knowledge. We may behave like a car salesman, who is just interested in selling the old junk not worth much, or a new car, where we exaggerate how fantastic the motor is.

Perhaps this reminds you of how some hosts and guests on the many TV talk shows behave. For example, how words are chosen when discussing about the recent India-Pakistan dispute; ‘we’ are right and ‘they’ are wrong, irrespective of what we really know about what happened. It also reminds us of how American officials talk about Syria in a propagandistic way. It is worrying to see how soon most of us get used to the words and language around us. We may not change our opinions, not entirely at least, but we let the agenda be set by others and take part in it on their terms.

Let me reflect a bit further, and I shall especially focus on the ‘hidden messages’ that our own and others’ language carries; the words we chose, the way we underline a point, the references we make, the tone and accent of our speech, and so on. All these things are important – and it is not only my friend above who has adopted deceitful techniques. 

Sociologists, linguists and other specialists may say that to speak without explaining the underlying premises, including using many foreign and unusual words and abbreviations, is unacceptable communication techniques. It can be termed ‘instrumentalism’, notably a heavy-handed way of forcing ones opinions on others.

When I was a young student in education, or pedagogy, as it was named in Norway, we used to say that we must not be ‘didactic’ in debates. We reminded ourselves of the importance of having a level playing field, since real and open communication requires that. Failing to do so, we might win the debate in the auditorium, and be applauded by our like-minded, but not convince those who had different opinions.

We cannot discuss language, power and politics without mentioning Noam Chomsky, an American cognitive linguist and political critic. He combines linguistic theories with political and moral analysis. In his more than one hundred books, he criticizes America’s lack of justice and democracy, and its imperialist actions. His latest book is entitled ‘Western Terrorism from Hiroshima to Drone Warfare’ (2013). He discusses issues mostly in a laymen’s language. Those who had the opportunity to attend some of his lectures when he visited Pakistan several times in the last decade know that, and he sprinkles his serious talks with dry humor.  

We must mind our language if indeed we want to be democratic, open-minded and analytical.  We must rather seek to understand than to tell others what they have not grasped. And we must communicate our ideas in a language that indicates that we are not dead-sure. The latter is important because we are rarely one hundred percent sure about much in this world, or the life hereafter. I get worried if somebody has no doubts and no further questions about an issue. I trust more someone who has a clear opinion, but adds, ‘I could be wrong’.

Last week, I watched the impressive newly released film ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’, discussing exactly how careful we must be about not being dead-sure. It shows how dangerous words can be, how easy it is to sway political and public debate and set the agenda for what everyone will talk about.

The film is based on Mohsin Hamid’s book by the same title as the film, published in 2007. The theme is the 9/11 tragedy and the intense propaganda against Muslim extremism which started immediately afterward; people were told ‘either you are with us, or you are against us’ – but the American president was dead-sure about something which was fluid and uncertain. And then, to be fair, the American president that time, Georg W. Bush, he admitted later that this was unfortunate wording. But shouldn’t he have regretted it while still in office? Didn’t he know how dangerous words can be?

In my home country Norway, parliamentary elections will be held on the coming Monday 9 September. The ruling Labour Party runs neck and neck with the Conservative Party, both in alliances with other smaller parties.

I find it impressive that several Norwegian politicians have admitted that some of the things they have said in the campaign were wrong, or, not quite correct, and sometimes they have changed their campaign statements – well, when they have realised that few voters agreed with them. All this is very decent, and I don’t think it is only done because the Norwegian voters are well educated.  

Politicians and the rest of us sometimes talk about things we don’t really know much about. It is not uncommon by public speakers in Pakistan either! Sometimes, we may even draw wide-ranging conclusions and offer advice to others based on superficial insight. Even school teachers and professors do that, and since they have power and authority, nobody dares question them. If we speak about something we have forgotten, we may say that we ‘misspeak’, as Hillary Clinton once did when she was caught having mixed up reality and fiction about some shooting at an airport she had visited. But everything had been calm and quiet where she had been.

 Generally, we must aspire to speak the truth, as we see it. And we must do it in a way that is understandable to lay and learned men and women at a level playing field. We must learn to analyse what others say in a broad context. After all, language is the basic tool for analysis and communication, for learning and finding better solutions to problems – and for telling others when they have wrong opinions, such as the  America’s stance on Syria, the drone attacks in Pakistan and most of its military aggression in Afghanistan, Iraq, and so on. Language is the only weapon we should use in a context of dialogue and respect. We have a duty to speak up, and words do matter.

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from research, diplomacy and development aid.