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?

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