Language and peace

Language is the most effective system of communication available to us and without it, human beings cannot attain their full potential. It is the main distinguishing factor between human beings and other creatures or what sets us apart. Essentially, as Gomes de Matos notes, language is our “mental marvel for peaceful meaning-making and problem solving.”

It is through language that we build and destroy, make and mar, cooperate with some people and alienate others. It is through language that we make peace, express aggression, fuel conflict and declare war. To mind one’s language is one of the most fundamental determiners of being a gentleman. The essence of language is to make peace, promote development and engender cooperation on solving our diverse problems. Anything short of that positive purpose is abuse of language.

In his book, “Leviathan”, first published in 1651, Thomas Hobbes, one of the first thinkers to draw attention to how language is used to achieve peace and abused to promote conflict, identified the uses and abuse of language. According to him, the four uses of speech or language are to register thought, to pass information across to others by counseling or by teaching, to interact with one another “so that we may have the mutual help of one another” and to please and delight ourselves and others.

These functions, however, can be abused when, according to Hobbes, “when men register their thoughts wrong, by the inconstancy of the signification of their words; by which they register for their conception, that which they never conceived, and so deceive themselves. Secondly, when they use words metaphorically; that is in other sense than that they are ordained for; and thereby deceive others. Thirdly, by words, when they declare to be their will, which is not. Fourthly, when they use them to grieve one another… It is but an abuse of speech.”

In other words, Thomas Hobbes posits that using language to deceive others, the way politicians do is, is abuse. Using indirectness and figures of speech for the sole purpose of confusing people is abuse. Telling outright lies or misleading others with words is abuse and attacking others by insulting, abusing, slandering or morally judging them is abuse. They all lead to misunderstanding, conflict and possible physical violence.

To abuse language is to threaten peace, which is the absence of dissension, violence or war. Peace is the greatest, highest and noblest good that we can ever conceive and achieve. It is the purpose of life and without peace, life loses its purpose or value, like a leaf separated from its parent tree, it can only gyrate and flutter for a while before it falls. Just as a single match can cause a huge fire that can consume a whole city, a bad word or speech can make two entities or communities ravage each other or make a person commit suicide.

George Orwell noted in 1946 in his “Politics and the English language” that when the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer, the way our language has deteriorated in Nigeria. He also asserted that modern English is “full of bad habits which spread by imitation.” These bad habits have spread so much among Nigerians that many people who should be responsible are utterly irresponsible by virtue of what they say or write. At the end of the day, as the media trumpet toxic language, the whole country on many occasions appears to be on the tenterhooks.

For the purpose of our collective peace, development and security, there is an urgent need to embrace peaceful language and avoid violent language. It is a violation of peaceful language and good communication to engage in hate speech, generate or spread fake news, engage in verbal violence or abuse and insult, embarrass or malign others. Language is meant to build or heal, not to destroy or kill.

One important point to remember is to always take our listeners and readers into consideration when we use words. Not only must we be truthful and fair, we must also be considerate and cautious because words cut keener than knives.  When one has nothing good, fair or nice to say, then one should appreciate that silence is gold while speech is silver.

And rather than exchange hot words or use charged language, it is always better to give an agent provocateur “the best answer”: silence.

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