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The danger of verbal violence

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
July 12, 2021

I don't know how the acidic squabble between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition will end, but I know that verbal violence can have as much devastating consequences as physical violence.

Two of our most prominent leaders cannot be at each other's throats every day, with their hate-filled language poisoning the national blood stream.

On August 31, 1962, Eric Williams, our first prime minister, addressed the nation, asking, "What use will you make of your Independence? What will you transmit to your children five years from today? Other countries ceased to exist in that period. Some, in much less time, have become totally disorganised, a prey to anarchy and civil war."

He also spoke of the joint responsibility of our parliamentarians and citizens to conduct our discourses in a civil manner. He said: "The ordinary citizen must recognise the role of the Parliament in our democracy and must learn to differentiate between a Member of Parliament, whom he may like or dislike, and the respect that must be accorded to that same Member of Parliament ex-officio. I call on all citizens from now on to accord the highest respect to our parliamentary system and institutions and to our Parliament itself."

In laying the nation's foundation, Williams emphasised the sanctity of "the word". He took his lead from the Apostle John: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." In Williams's way of seeing, "the word" and its careful use are not incidental to constructing a democratic state.

Our politicians should consider the impact that their verbal violence has on the psychological state of our nation, particularly on the young people whom we blame for all the evils in the nation. To steal a line from Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, our leaders do not understand: "Young people are the foundation for all of today's suffering Russia, her only hope." We only have to replace the word Russia with T&T to understand the grievous harm we inflict on our children and young people when we pour poisonous language into their consciousness.

Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst, argued that "the unconscious is structured like a language", by which he meant verbal speech and written texts are all signifying systems that are constitutive of an individual's psychoanalytical experience. They also contribute significantly to the formation of the psychology of a people. It is through these media that nations begin to know and to recognise themselves.

The Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister are going down a dangerous road when the former describes the Prime Minister as a "vaccine vagrant... who operates as a conman", and the latter retorts that her description of him "applies only to his clothes which are easily changed frequently" but his description of her "will be of the indelible variety which she wakes up with every morning" (Express, July 4).

Each nation has its foundational texts that guide their behaviour. America has Lincoln's "Second Inaugural Address", Britain has Churchill's "Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat" speech. T&T has Williams's "Message to the Youth of the Nation" and his "Independence Address". Each citizen should know these speeches by heart.

When I attended primary school in Tacarigua, the teachers filled the walls with proverbs and memorable verses meant to advise and inspire. One Arabian proverb remained with me. It read: "There are four things come not back—the spoken word, the sped arrow, the past life, and the neglected opportunity."

William Wordsworth, "My Heart Leaps Up", has also remained in my memory as a guiding star. It reads:

"My heart leaps up when I behold / A rainbow in the sky: / So was it when my life began; / So is it now I am a man / So be it when I shall grow old, / Or let me die! / The Child is father of the Man; / And I could wish my days to be / Bound each to each by natural piety."

The "natural piety" of which Wordsworth speaks reflects the elation that he experienced when he saw the beauty of the rainbow. Some people have described ours as a rainbow nation, in testimony of the varied races and people who live in our country. This sentiment is recognised in "God Bless Our Nation", our national song. Every word and action must be directed towards keeping the nation together rather than pulling it apart.

Now that T&T is coming out of a pandemic, it will face many challenges. Sobriety and common sense should be fundamental principles to guide us. As we strive to construct a new day, strident speech and personal animosities demeaning others do not seem to be the way to go. Language is never innocent. It is always filled with meaning that goes beyond the immediate "cutting down" of those it is designed to affect.

Sometimes we are deluded into believing that bad speech acts are pointed only at the individual. Ultimately, such insults are directed at the entire community that each politician represents. Kamla Persad-Bissessar cannot insult Rowley and feel that she is only insulting him. The same is true for Rowley. In the process, they insult each other's community; therein lies the danger of harmful speech.

Williams ended his Independence Address with reference to Corinthians 15:10: "By the grace of God we as a people are what we are, and His Grace in us hath not been void."

Let us not destroy our nation through harmful words and hate-filled polemics. In the words of Majorie Padmore: "God bless our leaders / Give them the grace to guide / Bestow on them thy judgment wise /To rule our land aright."

Prof. Cudjoe's email address is He can be reached @ProfessorCudjoe.

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