Resorting to Politics of Doublespeak and Alternative Facts

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By Yabagi Mohammed.

Language is a guide to social reality. … (I)t powerfully conditions all our thinking about social problems and processes. Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. … We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation. – Edward Sapir

The truth is language fascinates me; especially manner of expression in written or oral form. I get easily enamored if particular lines of thought are craftily and imaginatively presented by an expresser. Sometimes people ask why I was not a student of languages, but in journalism, we learn every day; so, by virtue of my chosen profession, I am a student of language.

Nigeria’s democracy has advanced since the return to civil rule in 1999. Opposition politics is one that has seen no modernism, remaining in its crudest state, degenerating into the labyrinth jumble with absence of finesse and incredulity. Rather than concentrate on how to address facts and defend their parties while seldom standing by government on some of its policies and programmes, especially those aimed at advancing the course of society, members of the opposition are more concerned with fault, rather than fact finding. No opposition group does that than the ones in my state of Kogi.

I remember when one of Donald Trump’s closest aids recently, some people said “coined”, the term ‘alternative facts’, but the right word should have been “reawake” the phrase, ‘alternative fact;’ there was uproar. But, the reality could, indeed, be more complex than many journalistic linguists understand. There is a reported surge in the sales of George Orwell’s 1984, apparently since Kellyanne Conway introduced the phrase “alternative facts” into public discourse.

For many, the term is reminiscent of Orwell’s dystopian Newspeak, the imaginary language used by the novel’s totalitarian government to control the way the population thinks. It also allows for the doublethink of the slogans “War is Peace”, “Freedom is Slavery”, and “Ignorance is Strength” that also feature in the book. But while Newspeak is fiction, there’s at least an element of truth to the way it shows how meaning is shaped. Language is never a register of completely stable meaning. Words are always slippery, always open to manipulation. We may mock how blatant Conway was in her manipulation, but disputing the meanings of words is always part of political debate. And that is how those who oppose thrive in their contriving of other facts.

In times like this one, where there is uncertainty over linguistic meaning to an expression such as the one used by Kellyanne, the inkling would be to consult the dictionary; that is for those who are interested in learning. As the lexicography scholar, Howard Jackson wrote: “We all take what the dictionary says as authoritative: if the dictionary says so, then it is so.” But this is built on a flawed conception both of what a dictionary is – and what language is. The dictionary is one of those concepts, like the Bible, which gets talked about as if there were a single canonical version. In the same way, this platonic ideal of the dictionary is seen as the most accurate record of a language. When people complain, for example, that such-and-such a word isn’t in the dictionary, they’re questioning the legitimacy of that word and suggesting that it isn’t a proper part of the language.

Early lexicographers such as Dr. Samuel Johnson and Pierre Larousse may have aimed at objectivity, but certain subjectivity still crept into their works. A famous example is Johnson’s definition of “oats” which manages to include a very non-objective sideswipe at his northern neighbours: “Grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.”

This subjectivity simply reflects the fact that the meanings of words aren’t absolute constants – that definitions stem from the way language is used. This not only changes over time, but can be contested and fought over. Take the word “theory” for example. For some it means a generalised scientific explanation of phenomena in the world. For others it’s a mere guess at how the world might work.

The internet, with its pluralism and user-based authorship, brings this clearly into focus. There’s an active online community dedicated to documenting and discussing vocabulary, one of the most popular examples of which is Urban Dictionary. Started in 1999 by Aaron Peckham, the idea behind this is to record ephemeral and everyday spoken language, submitted by users, and to give definitions which are explicitly meant to be personal rather than standardised.

Here in Kogi State, just as many other parts of the country, the opposition parties, rather than focus on concentrating on issues as presented by government or party in power, what they do is engage in banal trite. The employ acerbic verbiage mordantly, just that ends up circumventing rather than enlightening their camp.

A case in point is about those who may agree with government over the ongoing staff screening and verification in the state. The governor, Alhaji Yahaya Bello, has, on several occasions, come out to let staff of the state employment know that his administration was out to sanitise the system in order to create prosperity and brighter future for the next generation. Issues such as dispora withdrawal, multiple payments, redundancy, forgery, document doctoring and other criminal offenses have been discovered in the course of the screening/verification.

The governor once said “the State has been bleeding under very heavy wage bill occasioned by manipulations on the part of the civil servants which has made government to perpetually rely on borrowing to meet up with its obligations.’The issue of screening that is ongoing is very important, when we came on board the wage bill was N3bn and a staff strength of over 39000. When you move round the state where are the offices, where are the schools, where are the hospitals? We are aware that since 2011 there has not been any advertisement for recruitment of staff so how can we be having this heavy wage bill monthly?”

He said what accrues to the state from the federation account monthly had dwindled to between N2bn to N2.2bn adding that the Internally Generated Revenue, hovered around N400m and N500m monthly. He explained further that when all that is put together it would not even be enough for salaries.

With the information therefore, it is pertinent that the state is in need of swift intervention to prevent it from “bleeding to death.” Those on the other side of the aisle would have none of that as they are hell bent on frustrating the governor from seeing to the logical conclusion of the screening. They have used several schemes to frustrate his efforts; including the use of physical, verbal, and some people said, spiritual apparatuses to frustrate the screening.

From afar, one might blame sympathise with the naysayers, but the privilege journalists have is they are able to interact with all calibre of people in the society, including some of those tasked with the responsibility of the screening. By their revelations, many of which are not covered by the media due to their sensitivity, one is left with no option than to give kudos to the doggedness and courage of the governor. The truth is, Kogi is in a sorry state.

You therefore wonder when those who disagree with the governor on the basis of political, religious, ethnic and other differences, come out, mostly on the social media, to vomit all forms of  grammatically fortuitous, morally reprimanding, logically tailspin, sensibly insensible and humanly ignoble wordings in the name of opposing the governor and his screening committee.

I would not waste my time reeling out the positive strides the state has been able to make having saved the state several millions that used to go pockets of people who contribute nothing to the resources of the state. Road constructions, street lights, improved environment and others are glaring for all to see. So, this is not the space to reel all that out, but one to examine their use of language.

As has been stated above, the growth of technology which has allowed people to use the social media, has been abused by those who utilise expletives to show disagreement with policies of government, rather than employ decency. They prefer alternative facts, rather than facts of a matter. Unfortunately, doublespeak can be described as language that pretends to communicate but really doesn’t. It that makes the good seems bad, the positive to appear negative, the pleasant appear unattractive. Doublespeak is a language that avoids or shifts responsibility at variance with its real or purported meaning. It is language that conceals or prevents thought; rather than extending thought, doublespeak corrodes it.

But as it is, the nation’s democracy is on the rise, Kogi is riing and it is high time we begin to grow beyond the parochial sentiments and political immaturity. It is time those on the other side of the divide to deploy correct linguistics that would communicate and counter policies and programmes of government, rather than deploying doublespeak and alternative facts in their form of politics.

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