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Dr Maya Angelou once said: “Words matter, they are things. Be careful how you use them. You must be careful about calling people out of their names, using racial pejoratives and sexual pejoratives and all that ignorance. Don’t do that. Some day we’ll be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things. They get on the walls. They get in your wallpaper. They get in your rugs, in your upholstery, and your clothes, and finally in to you. So be careful how you use them.”
Every genocide ever committed started with words. Nothing else. Not guns, not bombs. With words. If you ever doubt this just visit a holocaust museum or the genocide museum in Kigali, Rwanda. In every country where genocide was committed, there was always a popular leader, with good oratory skills, who would promise “his” people a better life than the one they currently had. Over time he would blame “the other” for the wrongs in society and the world.
The cancer of hatred would begin to grow, first surreptitiously and then exponentially. Gradually those belonging to a specific faith, race or tribe would become the reason for all that is bad. They would become the locus of all evil and dehumanised. At this point those in power and their followers would become capable of perpetrating the most horrific evil deeds against other human beings. We have seen it in Rwanda, Germany, Burundi, Bangladesh, Iraq, Guatemala, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Chile and are still seeing it in Syria today.
It always starts with words because words matter.
It matters when Julius Malema says that he is not “encouraging his followers to kill whites…yet” because it is dangerous. It matters when the ANC blames all that is wrong in this country on white monopoly capital, because it is not completely truthful and diverts attention from that which is really wrong. It also matters when racist things are said on the internet or social media, because it hurts others and creates dangerous levels of anger and resentment.
It also matters greatly when the president of the United States bans all the people from certain Muslim countries, yet says that Christians are welcome in the US. It matters because his words are based on the absurd lie that all Muslim people are dangerous and all Christians are good and because it only creates more hatred which makes our world an even more dangerous place. (There is no better way to radicalise young people from the Islamic faith than to treat them like they are the dirt of the earth or evil personified.)
It also matters when President Donald Trump says that he has no problem with torture, “because we will do to them what they do to us”. It matters because the use of torture degrades and dehumanises those who perpetrate it. It puts them beyond the pale of humanity. Nations using torture take themselves beyond the pale of the civilised world.
In his first seven days in office, through his words and signature, Trump has made the world a much more dangerous place for all of us. As its leader he has ensured that America, which has stood for liberty and freedom, has lost all moral high ground. The words that he signed in his executive orders will cause the deaths of thousands of women who will no longer have access to safe health care in the developing world. He has separated families, demonised those of Islamic faith and started a process to keep Mexicans behind a wall like infected animals. He has simply shown no compassion for anyone outside of the United States.
It is difficult to see how his behaviour is different from so many dictators who used their powers (unlimited by parliamentary oversight) to cause immense pain and harm to others, whilst trying to boost their own popularity amongst their own.
It is important that we all realise how dangerous this is, also for us in South Africa. Not only because of the impact that Donald Trump’s words and policies will have on our world, but because his words and actions seem to be giving so many racist and xenophobic South Africans a new and misplaced confidence in promoting their own hateful beliefs.
None of us can stay silent when words and deeds are being used for hatred and causing pain, whether it is in our own country or in any other country.
I once had the privilege to have dinner with Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize laureate. He spoke at length about the dangers of silence in the face of injustice. He said that night as he often did: “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
Emeritus Archbishop Desmond Tutu said something similar: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
Neutrality is not an option in these times. We have to continue to speak out and protest against what is happening in America and our own country. We have to remain alert and not allow any politician to toy with our future and security – as powerless as we might feel.
As Elie Wiesel put it: “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”
It all starts with words.
- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland. Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.
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