Conventionally Speaking

How We Listen to Nothing

NO, by neil-san, with Creative Commons licenceWho speaks in the silence between words? In his masterly essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, George Orwell wrote of hackneyed phrases, terms that enter the popular imagination deprived of their original meaning, devoid of context and “ready to think your thoughts for you”. They appeal to the emotions rather than the rational mind, and use silence as a shield, as a way to stop true understanding. Their intent is negative – by excluding something they allow someone or something else to speak quietly to you, urging you to ignore what you already know.

Some of these phrases are deliberate manipulations, others are unfortunate cultural lapses. All are dangerous.

Consider first a term that I often see in my professional capacity as an editor in Hong Kong – the ‘Tiananmen Incident’. Now regardless of the dubious capitalization, what does this describe? An event that took place in Tiananmen presumably, and anyone with a little curiosity could easily find that the site is a plaza in Beijing, a famous meeting place and home to Mao Zedong’s tomb. But what does the term refuse to say? That 19 years and two days ago the Chinese military, at the instructions of the government, massacred hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators, mainly students.

Speak out for Peace, by mudkat, with Creative Commons licenceThat’s common knowledge, right? Yes, but in China it’s not commonly spoken. And in Hong Kong, that little part of China which really isn’t China at all, academics tend not to use the term ‘massacre’. They sanitise the situation with ‘incident’. That’s the official government line, and as Hong Kong academic Carsten Holz argued in the April print edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review last year, those who don’t listen to the voice in the silence soon find that their research in China generates few useful results. Data are not forthcoming and the mandatory local research partner is unlikely to be found.

But the transformation of a memory into a sanitised, politically correct – and corrective, from a certain point of view – phrase is not always that obvious. Take, for instance, the common use of the term ‘9/11’ to describe the horrific attacks by Al Qaeda terrorists on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon in the US on 11 September 2001. Even that brief description omits those who died when the airplane heading for the White House crashed early, the shear savagery of the falling towers and the long list of the dead. But it’s a useful summary. It speaks of the inability to forget.

9/11, in contrast, says nothing – it carries no description, just evocation. Most importantly, it speaks in the silence that surrounds it of Al Qaeda’s decision to stage the attack on the one day of the year that would match the American emergency services telephone number.

Emotion, the echo of panic in a call for help, has replaced history and memory.

The list of these phrases could go on, and sometimes they’re well meant. In the 1980s and 1990s ever more Australians began to speak about the ‘British invasion’ of the continent in an effort to highlight the violence of conquest, the dispossession and murder of indigenous people. But lost somewhere within that shift towards a more rational view of Australian history, away from the romanticisation of a somehow peaceful ‘settler society’, the word ‘war’ went missing.

Cropped version of 'Silence', by boskizzi, with Creative Commons licenceImportant historians like Henry Reynolds have written about how the early ‘settlers’ vividly described war around them, but it’s not a commonly used word anymore. The grandiose ‘conquest’ or the more functional ‘invasion’ speaks more easily in generalities, in conventional symbolism. Intellectuals argue in public about how many indigenous people were slaughtered and whether ‘genocide’ is an accurate description. That’s an important debate. But specifics like blood, guts, grief, loss, anger and pain – the very limits of the human condition, are beginning, once more, to slide out of mainstream cultural memory.

Sometimes we’re spoken to in the silence between words, but sometimes we speak that silence ourselves.

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