Sticks, stones, words & Adam Habib

Posted on April 8, 2021


(First published in City Press, April 04, 2021)

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. So goes an old adage. But, of course, words can be hurtful: it all depends on the context. But words, because they exist, cannot be made to de-exist and nor can the use of any words be claimed as the sole prerogative of any self-defined group.

Words, especially in the context of social rejection, can be extremely harmful. As indeed can certain gestures or behaviour. Which is why in most legal systems, there exist laws which make it a criminal offence to offend the dignity of another person or group.

But words, phrases and concepts can also be weaponised usually by those wishing to stifle debate in order to promote some religious, ethnic or political objective. Internationally, the most obvious and persistent case is that of the conflation of the nationalist political philosophy of Zionism with the religion of Judaism.

According to this definition, anyone opposing the politics and policies of the state of Israel is defined as “anti-Semitic”. In other words expressing a hatred of Jews. This has the effect intimidating individuals and of shutting down debate on a major human rights issue.

However, this form of ethnic nationalism has been widely condemned, most recently this week by 200 Jewish intellectuals in what has been dubbed the Jerusalem Declaration on Anti-Semitism (JDA). It is the latest in statements that have pointed out that politicians and ideologues can and do use ethnic, religious, linguistic and other fundamentally superficial differences to divide, rule and manipulate populations.

But news of the JDA, certainly in South Africa, was overwhelmed by another ruckus about the use of words: the so-called N-word row at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) involving its director, Adam Habib, former vice-chancellor of Wits. In a discussion in which he made clear that the use of offending terminology would not be tolerated at SOAS, he mentioned — correctly in the context — the offending word.

He was promptly dubbed, by what can only be described as a vocal mob, as a racist. And they maintained that the context did not matter: only black people could use the term. Habib, of Indian ancestry, was not apparently black enough.

So, according to this grouping, the “N-word” may only be used by those they define as “black’. Does this mean people defining themselves as “Black” may use it in all and any context, even when it is aimed to cause pain by social rejection?

And does this ruling also apply to the “K-word”? Not only has author Fred Khumalo, by using this word in context, shown how silly is this ultra-Woke censorship. And the word is also to be found — again in context — in justly praised works of literature.

Imagine describing a scene in rural apartheid South Africa, for example, where a white farmer threatens a black worker. It would be a travesty to print the dialogue as: “I’m going to kill you, you bloody K-word.”

Then there is, of course, the “F-word” which was most definitely likely to cause offence to a great many people, even a decade or two ago. The short-form description of fornication is now fairly commonplace in films and even in some mainstream publications.

At a time when publication of short-form fornication was severely — even legally — frowned upon, so too was the use of the term queer. But it became, in our sexist society, quite proudly appropriated by homosexual groups. The word, gay, also underwent a similar transition in recent decades.

Depending on the context, even now, such terms can be used in a hurtful way. Context — it includes apparent intent — is vital. And, for all the current furore, it is not only words with racist connotations that, in certain contexts, would be hurtful and harm the dignity of someone they were directed at.

What about those words — in a sexist, male dominant society — referring particularly to the female anatomy? Or those referring to male genitalia?

Dependent again on the context, I have found it either ridiculous and simply vulgar to be called a “silly old C-word” especially since the reference is to something I do not possess. The same would apply to what, for the sake of apparent super political correctness, I should refer to as the P-word, something I do at least have.

The simple truth is that words cannot be obliterated. And, driving them underground, merely guarantees their longevity in hurtful contexts. Context is all and laws already exist to deal with those who would hurt others by sticks, stones or words.

The mob howling now for the head of Habib display their ignorance of history and language. They are perhaps, useful idiots helping to promote the tribal fragmentation of the working class majority. And that can only help to serve the very system that creates and maintains the racism they complain about.

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