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Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Toxic politics and the language of change

“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives."– Toni Morrison
Language. I’ve been thinking a lot about it and how it is used in our political discourse of late.
“Stupid”. “Irresponsible.” “Reprehensible.” “Childish.” “Selfish.” These are the words that have been flooding opinion pieces written in response to the #UndiRosak campaign for the past few months.
They are used to refer to those on the margins of Malaysian society, those who think about politics differently, and those who are by no means homogenous.
Condemnation, guilt-tripping, ridicule, demonisation, and emotional blackmail seem to be the only response we know and are familiar with.
What has impoverished our souls, that we cannot extend the generosity that would enable us to listen to these voices and understand their anger and frustration, is a question to marvel at.
In our pursuit of change, we have unconsciously become the terrifying monsters we loathe, the monsters we are forced to live with, the monsters whose power we seek to challenge and dismantle.
An opposition politician, Amanah vice-president Hasanuddin Mohd Yunus, went further to demand that the police and Election Commission take action against dissenters for "inciting" Malaysians to spoil their votes. Outrage at this absurdity was almost non-existent.
Whatever happened to critical thinking? Have we not intellectual honesty? How can we allow this suppressive language that is killing our imagination to roam wildly? Immobilized by this toxic, suffocating political culture, these questions continue to linger.
Having to carry the unspeakable weight of the country engulfed by perpetual marginalisation, widening inequality, and poisonous racial and religious hatred makes change imperative. It is a given.
The dissenting voices that are currently under vicious attack bring to the fore numerous issues and raise questions surrounding the idea of change that must be addressed.
The right questions
Given the political stalemate we are facing today, it is high time we asked the right questions.
Ursula K Le Guin, one of the literary greats who passed away last week, aptly said: “There are no right answers to wrong questions.” Asking the right questions in this trying time is therefore necessary.
The questions we hardly ask and should start asking amidst the paralysing noise are: What is the meaning of change? What needs to change?  What kind of change do we want?
How do we make this change? How can we empower every member of our society, particularly the marginalised among us to be part of this change? 
How do we give meaning to the phrase “people power”? How do we get rid of our reliance on political elites on both sides of the divide so that they don’t get to hold us ransom as they always do?
Asking the right questions is not a matter of academic exercise, and it is utterly unjust to treat it as such. It would not instantly lead us to all the answers we need, but it would definitely assist us in finding them as we go along.  
Asking the right questions would allow us to understand the existing issues, grasp the root of the problems, and differentiate between a real, meaningful, inclusive change and the illusion of it.
It would also keep us in check so that good has a chance to breathe and evil, lesser or greater, is constantly challenged and not compromised.
Embarking on this process is extremely vital in a time where evil has become so banal that we often find ourselves dismissing the importance of staying true to the arduous struggle for a just nation, equating the struggle to a utopian dream.
Nobody has the right to demand perfection, as it is nothing but an impossibility. This fact, however, does not absolve us from the responsibility for setting and defending certain moral standards that would not render good - a notion that has become so alien to us today - illusory.
Too idealistic and unrealistic, some might say. If we can give lesser evilism such prominence, as if it is the only possibility and option we are capable of imagining, what is stopping us from attempting to imagine that the greater good could be given a room to exist?
Change also encompasses efforts to build critical consciousness. This endeavour is key to strengthening people power, which would ensure that oppression and injustice are constantly confronted and challenged.
Using suppressive language in response to dissenting voices would close the space for intellectual discourse and adversely stunt the urgent need to build critical consciousness. It would also further embolden the toxic political culture that is creeping deeper into our society.
Language has the power to suppress as well as empower. If the unceasing use of suppressive language in our political discourse goes unchallenged, it will mark the death of our imagination – a catastrophic tragedy we should all strive to avoid.  

FADIAH NADWA FIKRI is one of the movers of Malaysia Muda.- Mkini

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