Language and the praxis of democracy

The classical pre-Wittgenstinian theory of language was something almost all of us learned in the elementary grades.  In the mind (wherever that might be!), I have thoughts, but if I have to pass on those thoughts to others, these must be properly coded.  Language is the coding of thought and it occurs either in speech or in writing.  The reader of the hearer then decodes, and if the process is correct, then the very same thoughts as occurred to me should occur in the mind of my reader or hearer.  But when Wittgenstein wrote his programmatic lines in the great slender volume beguilingly titled “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:” “The world is all that is the case.  The world is the totality of facts, not of things”, then even if he would revisit his theory of language subsequently, the coding theory was debunked forever!  Now, we have accepted that our access to the world—to “reality”—is never pure but always mediated, by language, particularly.  It is not because “red” and “crimson” are different hues that we have different terms for them.  Rather, it is because we have different terms for them that we distinguish between “red” and “crimson”.  There is no such thing as an “extra-linguistic” or a “pre-linguistic” thought.  You cannot think two hundred sixty three nautical miles east northeast of Aparri without saying those words, at least to yourself, sotto voce or even sine voce!

And the Roman empire-builders (imperialists, in the very real sense) knew the power of words.  SPQR—Senatus Populosque Romanus —the Senate and the Roman People:  It was that crucial distinction between “Romanus” (what and who was Roman) and “gens” that spelled the difference between the applicability of Roman law as distinct from “jus gentium” -- the law of (non-Roman) peoples!  So it is to that on some favored cities, no matter that they were distant from Rome and that its inhabitants had not a drop of Roman blood, the status of “Roman” would be bestowed, making them thus “Romans”.  The French Revolution’s cry of “egalite” made all titles and sobriquets irrelevant (sometimes, even death-dealing) and championed the equalizing terms of l’homme and citoyen.  

The praxis of democracy is the institutionalization of inclusiveness, more than it has to do with configuration of governmental power.  And therefore characterizations and categorizations that tend towards exclusion are threats to democracy.  Two such terms are “Dilawan” and “Dutertard.”  A “Dilawan” will not be paid heed, because of the colors he wears.  A Dutertard will likewise be ignored in many circles of discourse because of his allegiance.  One can also include “Loyalist,” referring to the persons who believe that Ferdinand Marcos was a great leader—which, really, is a defensible position—and “Noytard,” which suggests mental retardation on the part of those who were associated with the past regime.  No, we will never really be free of monikers and labels but when they obstruct discourse, when they stand in the way of respectful exchange, when they create communicative (and political) dis-equality, then the praxis of democracy is compromised.  “Troll” is another such slight.  No one pays serious attention to a troll: She is either paid to troll, or paid to wag.  In either case, she is not worthy of serious attention.  If the reason that the Commission on Human Rights faces the prospect of operating on a one-thousand peso budget is because Gascon is “Dilawan,” then that is exactly what I mean by the adoption of language that stands in the way of democracy.  Freedom of speech and expression cannot be invoked to make the exercise of these very freedoms and others that go with them impossible!  Similarly, many trolls may be an annoying lot, but there is also so much that has been ignored as “trollyism” that may nevertheless be a genuine echo of popular sentiment, and thus instructive to government.

The recent letter of the CBCP takes up this point as well.  When we have labelled certain members of our society as “irremediable,” “perverse”, “sira,” “adik,” then it becomes so much the easier to treat them as expendable because of what we call them.  Similarly “nanlaban” has become a read shield against assiduous investigation of murders and homicides committed by law-enforcers, just as “nanlaban”—when used by opponents of the present administration or of its policies, masks legitimate police operations and shrouds them in suspicion and aspersions of unlawfulness.  

One of the nursery rhymes we learned as children went: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”  We should know better.  Words matter.  They can hurt.  And they can threaten democracy!

Topics: Language and the praxis of democracy

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