It’s time to decommission words…

I remember walking past graffiti on a wall on the Falls Road around the turn of the millennium. In thick white scrawl it read, “NOT A BULLET, NOT AN OUNCE”. These words were a defiant prediction that there would be no decommissioning of weapons as part of the peace process. By 2010, however, all major paramilitary groupings had put their weapons beyond use. Some weapons were destroyed publicly and many more were buried in concrete bunkers. These acts of decommissioning allowed the peace process to march on.

I carried out an act of decommissioning myself a couple of weeks ago. During the 4 Corners Festival  in Belfast this year, we had an evening of inter-faith music. People from many world faiths gathered in Grosvenor Hall to hear singers and musicians give us a flavour of their traditional faith music. During the evening we heard an Imam sing the Islamic ‘call to prayer’. In the verses he sung, I heard the phrase, ‘Alahu Akbar’, which means ‘God is great’. It struck me that the phrase had come to be associated, in my mind, with violence. Suddenly I became aware of the ‘weaponising’ of the phrase and that I had been hoodwinked into thinking of it as a dangerous phrase used only by dangerous people. And yet, in the Grosvenor Hall that evening I heard it in its proper context and it was beautiful- it was decommissioned.

Years after decommissioning weapons here in Northern Ireland, I believe we need to decommission again- this time our own ‘weaponised’ words and phrases. The run up to the election has shown us how our politicians can wield a phrase in such a way as to cause maximum damage to their opponents. We have heard entire sections of the community referred to as animals and been reminded that there exists a desire to ‘break these bastards’ for some of our politicians. While these words play well to a base instinct within many of us, they have no place in a political process that desires to create a partnership approach to government and reconciliation with neighbours.

Politicians are simply representatives of the people and all of us have been guilty at some time or other of using words that need to be consigned to the concrete bunker of history. To highlight what I mean, I would suggest a couple of words for total decommissioning (you will have others):

The first one for the bunker would be the word, ‘communities’. Innocuous in and of itself, just like ‘Alahu akbar’ it has become weaponised by how it is used. In our context the word communities perpetuates separation where separation need not exist. Yes there are differences within our community on all sorts of levels, but show me one community anywhere where this is not the case. We are one community- even if some don’t like that notion. We all live within the same land. Increasingly we use the same services and pass through the each other’s districts on our daily travels. Let’s decommission the word communities and the mindset behind it that keeps us falsely segregated and apart.

A second would be the word ‘scumbag’. This word is slang for people deemed to be despicable or less than human in some way. Like all words that need decommissioning, the word scumbag is applied in such a way as to be demeaning in and of itself, and also used as a justification for violence- ‘he deserved what he got; he’s a scumbag’, for example. Let’s decommission the word scumbag and the mindset that says there are groups of people within this society who are less than human and for whom a violent response is somehow inevitable and justified.

‘NOT A BULLET, NOT AN OUNCE’ jumped out from the walls some fifteen years ago. Thankfully, that turned out to be false prophesy. Decommissioning of weapons was inevitable and necessary and it created a space for this still young peace to be built up. When we decommission weaponised words and the mindset behind them will create a space for us to join together in learning a new language- a language of peace, reconciliation and togetherness. What act of decommissioning would you carry out today?

  • Jag

    So, Allaha Akhbar shouldn’t be decommissioned, just understood in a different context, whereas “scumbag” shouldn’t be used at all – what about “spide” or “langer”?Am a bit confused.

    As for the crocodile incident, the response to that was thoroughly confusing. Wasn’t it Churchill who first used the word in the context of appeasing his enemies? Big deal, Arlene wanted to look Churchillian. Personally, all I could think of was the Nile crocodile, and what crocodile is more in denial than Arlene? About RHI, Jonathan Bell, her advisors, the timelines, the communication with whistleblowers. And, if I may be so bold, Arlene does have that snag-toothed look about her which makes her look like a crocodile. It seemed precious in the extreme for anyone to get offended by that.

  • aquifer

    No it is time to re-read Orwell: e.g. “Every war when it comes, or before it comes, is represented not as a war but as an act of self-defense against a homicidal maniac”

    If hard accurate words will do instead of bombs blades and bullets, use them please.

    Recent wars have been getting especially hard on civilians.

  • file

    Jim, I get what you are on about in regard to ‘communities’ but it is probably the ‘both’ or the ‘two’ before it that needs decommissioned, not the ‘communities’. As you say, we are either one community or there are about 15 communities here: Chinese, Polish, atheist, agnostic, lapsed Protestant, collapsed Catholic, political, apolitical, Jewish, Irish speakers, Irish language activists (no the latter two are not one group), non-speakers but promoters of Ulster Scots, speakers but non-promoters of Ulster Scots … oh, and British and Irish.

    i would also like to decommission ‘Peace Process’. Peace is not a process, it is a state of affairs. Like war.

    But scumbag and other derogatory terms are fine … depends how you use them freedom of speech and all that.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    A scumbag’s a scumbag for aw thaht’…

  • Jim Deeds Gym For The Soul

    I get the freedom of speech element. It’s a tension between having the freedom and using it wisely. There are just some words and phrases that keep us stuck in that war/conflict state of affairs rather than move us to a peaceful state of affairs. Whatever we would decommission or not, I think it’s worth the discussion about how our language belies and so shakes our mindsets. Thanks for commenting.

  • file

    We need a dedicated Myles na gCopaleen thread, given that we are being governed by Sergeant Pluck

  • SeaanUiNeill

    “We are one community- even if some don’t like that notion.” Thank you Jim, I’ve been pressing this point ever since I began commenting on Slugger eight yaers ago. as you say, the encoded idea in “communities” is that there are two entirely different bodies of people mixed together, a formulation developed within the ideology of multiculturalism. The Harvard professor Robert D Putnam has carried out some very important research into examining how this “seperate cultures” formulation (as opposed to the more accurate concept of “polycultural” porus social boundaries) actually structurally discourages trust and even political spending on shared public projects.