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Euphemistically Speaking

The greatest disservice euphemisms do is to reduce serious concepts and debates to caricatures and serve as propaganda tools.

Being a journalist in this day and age isn’t just one job. It’s not just about possessing a certain skill set, honing those skills, and executing them day in and day out. There’s so much more to it; so many unthinkable hats that one has to wear. So there are days when you play the inquisitor and there are days when you prophesize. There are moments when you lead an outraged rebellion and then those where you play the diplomat/broker in search for the elusive middle-ground. Then come those conventional tasks that were once performed by scribes – that of a chronicler, a historian of sorts; and those of an adventurer, of the one who traverses distant landscapes to bring to you a taste of what it means to be in someone else’s shoes.

Along with these, there is also the task of a linguist that scribes perform. It was a traditional and painstaking role in many ways. It involved combing through texts in different languages and translating and transcribing documents for your own community. However with societies and their structures growing more complex, in our times that task has evolved. Today journalists are not only required to be mere linguists who can translate or simplify legal and political jargon, they also somewhere act as code breakers and even code makers. These codes imply the sly use of euphemisms – the art of saying something without actually saying it. Often these are used by the media with tongue firmly in cheek to pull off the sheets that cover political white elephants.

However, such verbal hieroglyphics are also a tool put to good use by the powers-that-be to shape perceptions and control the narrative. In simple terms, it is the use of euphemisms as political spin. Spin-masters have the role of crafting these codes; it is the nature of their job. And it is the mandate of a journalist to untangle and deconstruct that spin. Unfortunately, however, slowly we are wading in the direction of accepting it and even perpetuating it. In personal interactions, these are harmless and even fun to indulge; however, when used in everyday reporting and broadcasts, they don’t remain merely an instrument to convey facts, but result in manufacturing misguided perceptions.

For instance, one harmless and oft repeated euphemism on Indian news networks is the ‘party high command.’ It’s one of those phrases that have come to acquire a life of its own. You can often all but sense the desire of the anchor on TV to repeat it with a suggestive wink. Yeah, we all know what it means. Along with this are the other usual ones that are used by the political class to evade a question. ‘The law will take its own course’ and ‘the matter is sub-judice’ – neither of these two ever inhibit anyone from debating an issue on television and cast aspersions. But, it is a convenient argument to avoid a specific answer.

However, the most common and perhaps most accepted in India are ‘secular’ and ‘communal’. There is hardly ever a reasoned debate or a question asked on these counts. What these terms stand for in the context of Indian history and daily events on the ground is hardly ever questioned. In contrast, politicians and party spokespersons have weaved these two terms so intricately in our everyday debates that the mere mention is sufficient to evoke images of party symbols and certain individuals.

As damaging as these are in reducing the quality of political and public discourse, the greatest disservice that they do is to reduce even the most serious concepts and debates to caricatures and serve as propaganda tools.

The best example to support this argument is that of the scorn that terms like ‘human rights activist’ and ‘civil society’ tend to draw amongst certain sections in India. It’s quite an absurd situation, to be honest. At a certain level, human rights are universal – they are to be endowed upon people owing to the mere existence of them as human beings. In practice, it is a constant negotiation and renegotiation of legal, political, social and cultural rights and responsibilities that a society undertakes within the ambit of the social contract. It is a legitimate process. And going by the above understanding, it is a process whereby there is a constant dialogue with the state, often riddled with friction, which is critical to evolution.

Unfortunately, mainstream media seems to have taken a negative view of the notion of human rights and their proponents. It is a surreal experience to watch anchors question organizations and demand condemnation of violent, criminal or terrorist acts. It is unwelcome, though fathomable, when the political class raises such diversionary arguments. But from the media, it is unacceptable. It is incredulous for the media to ask an NGO to answer for a terrorist or criminal act – just because these organizations have condemned abuses/excesses by any arm of the state machinery. Activists are people and are bound to have a certain political and ideological disposition. However, at the end of the day, if they work within the legal framework and are looking to highlight and check government excesses, then attacking them for supposed biases and motives is akin to witch-hunts in the dark ages.

Just as we have witnessed instant furor and nipping in the bud of sweeping generalizations like “all politicians are corrupt or criminals.” it is imperative to cultivate nuance in the human rights debate. Not all those who support tribal welfare and challenge certain activities of the state are violent naxalites; not all those who stand against state excesses in strife-torn regions are anti-national; and not all those who seek justice for riot victims are political pawns. Painting them such is polarizing and dangerous.

Alas, it is the success of the political class of India to have ensured that such a narrative become commonplace in our discourse. And that makes it that much more urgent for mainstream media to introspect in order to offer a more nuanced perspective.

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