Making sense of politics in language

(Originally published in the Sowetan newspaper, Johannesburg, August 25, 2009)

Is it time to rehabilitate the term “quiet diplomacy”? To be more precise, is it not time to restore public appreciation for the practice of diplomacy? The question calls for a detour through politics in language and the language of politics.

A cursory glance at newspaper opinion pieces and editorials catalogues references to phrases such as “the international community”, “the broader international community”, “public opinion”, “public perception” and “public interest.” So do radio, television talk shows and private discussions.

Yet, these words and concepts are given different weights, meanings and applications that are to an extent context-specific and context dependent. Not only do they used to mean different things to different people, they are often employed to mean different things to different audiences at different times with the user’s assumptions and interests forming part of the context of their use.

But we would be ill-advised to allow the core concepts of democratic and progressive politics to be appropriated at will by particular interests.

The 14 Southern African Development Community member states are part of the international community, and themselves make up an international community but more precisely a regional community. However, popular uses of the concept would hardly consider Seychelles and Malawi as making up an international community. But few object when views and positions of powerful Western countries are presented as those of not merely a part of the international community but those of the international community itself. The powerful, it seems, have been allowed to appropriate for themselves the mantle of the whole world.

Likewise, defining public interest and interpreting public opinion and perception is a value laden exercise. It is a politically interested and contested process. The historian Eric Hobsbawm has written that: “It is hard to think of any of the great formative economists who was not deeply committed politically, for the same reason that it is hard to think of any great medical scientist who was not deeply committed to curing human sickness”.

Nowhere is does interest better reveal itself than in language – which is precisely why we must defend the integrity of concepts.  Someone who sets out to achieve “social equity,” has a different objective from one whose mission is “social equality”. Correspondingly, the latter is likely to speak of “poverty eradication” than “poverty alleviation”. More general and interchangeable references to “defeating poverty” and “defeating the scourge of poverty” may straddle different understandings of the problem that nevertheless emerge as interests are articulated more expansively.

So what is referred to as “public opinion”, “public perception” or “public interest” may in reality be in the interests of the message carrier.

That is what is happening when the phrase “international community” is used to exclude in practice the poorer and weaker countries of the world. If Malawi, Seychelles and other countries at best form part of “a broader international community”, their opinions, perceptions and views will either be relegated to the periphery of discourse or no one will even take the trouble to find out what they are. The views and interests of those who have defined themselves as the international community will prevail and find realisation in action.

Language in public and political discourses is therefore as much a contested an arena as the subject matter it seeks to describe. Thus, the first step to meaningful and informed participation is a critical examination of the use of concepts, their construction and reconstruction, the validity of their use, the techniques in their packaging, the way they are advanced and the purposes thereof.

In the context of recent and ongoing reporting on matters international, the phrase “quiet diplomacy” has suffered a mauling by those who have wished to give it a pejorative meaning. It might be rehabilitated when we read the following passage from a February 1958 speech by the late former Secretary General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld, in which he notes: “a tendency to play up conflict … [which] may result in premature and often poorly informed publicity about an issue at a time when the privacy of quiet diplomacy is essential to achieving a constructive result.”

He suggested that “Public opinion cannot be truly well informed about the progress of peacemaking unless it understands the part played at all stages by private diplomacy and its relationship to the public proceedings of parliamentary diplomacy which are so fully reported. This creates difficulties for the private negotiator and the representatives of the mass media.”

Is it not time to grapple with the challenges of diplomacy – by definition a quiet process – rather than trade insults in a way that debases the language we need to un understand the subject matter itself.

Mukoni Ratshitanga

August 25, 2009


3 thoughts on “Making sense of politics in language

  1. For instance, that word public interest is always used to advance the news paper companies selfish interests. We often see it when they expose sex scandals of politicians and that is used to embarass a certain individuak from getting ahead in politics. An example comes to my mind. Last year an expose’ of an extra marital affair by Minister Mbalula happened. He found himself in an embarassing situation and he had to strangely apologise to Mzansi’s people. Really now! I have no doubt in my mind that the same Mzansi people were they to be asked what they really thought about it, they would probably wonder if this is even news worthy. Who cares what politician sleeps with whom? Well i don’t care as long as that politician does his job to serve our communities well. Who s/he chooses to sleep with has got nothing to do with me. Then comes quiet diplomacy. The Thabo Mbeki / Zimbabwe issue comes to mind. The way it was reported on is that Mbeki was too lenient towards Mugabe and the Zanu pf and so hwas not really doing anything at those negotiations. And at was the perception created. I will say they succeeded in damaging Mbeki’s integrity and work ethic. At the same time, we as the public and consumers of news should not be be as lazy as to leave everything to other people’s opinions. We ought to read and understand it for ourselves. If i dont understand a certain news report, what is to stop me from picking up a pen, computer, or the phone to call the editor or send an email to ask for clarity? We must start to challenge and interrogate what we’re being fed with. That’s what active citizens do.

  2. Well said Mukoni…I wish I could say more, beside maybe urging you and the President to create more of these engagements. I think the time is right for a weekly take on thorny issues in our continent, and also our relationship with Middle East especially with so-called Arab spring etc.

    Maybe also touch on domestic issue, obviously sensitive to current developments around ANC…Mmmmm maybe stay away from domestic politics.

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