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Power of the word abused



It has started wars. Produced a sudden outbreak of peace in times of despair. In some faith, it brought the world into being and had to take on the form of man to redeem it. In today’s Nigeria, its abuse is reckless. In the anger that extant politics, which seems to generate it even raises the abuse more, debilitating. But those who abuse it seem oblivious of possible consequences. I saw the pattern in 1965 Nigeria, but visiting the UK as they marked the Holocaust Memorial on the 27th of January, the choice of theme for 2018 – the power of words – set me on the path of reflection. Can the thoughtless use of words wrought havoc on the dream of Nigeria’s founding fathers the way Hitler’s crippled Germany. Hate speech and fake news in social media is making Hitler look like a kindergarten pupil.

Builders need words. Great nation builders use words to inspire a people to believing in something bigger than themselves. Abraham Lincoln used them to disarm his enemies and persuade a skeptical followership. Winston Churchill used them to talk down the wimps and drum up courage in a country appeasement was waiting to drown. Words indeed helped Wole Soyinka define mortality for a man unable to look truth in the face. Words are truly powerful for good or for ill. The trouble with Nigeria is that they are often used more to destroy than to build. What is desperately needed in this land of promise that is so badly hemorrhaging from self-inflicted wounds. If all the elements of leadership failure in Nigeria, none has been more glaring than the inability of the people who obtain or seek power to find the words that heal, unite and inspire a path to the promise of Nigeria as the trigger point of the African century and the redemption of a race subjugated.

The extreme partisanship in public conservation and the thoughtless abusive tone, unfortunately depresses the possibilities those in frenzied engagement say is their objective. Progress depends much on the strengthening of the public sphere in modern democratic arrangement. I speak often of the profound thinking of contemporary German philosopher Jurgen Habermas on the subject and what that means for constructing the marketplace of ideas.

Yet, as we watch, the Nigerian ideas market place is crumbing. I know those who say they can estimate how much was paid for stories in the media. Even though there are significant exceptions, the trend worries me. These include some very principled journalists and media houses and some who refuse to give, come Hell or Highwater. In the social media space, there are times when you wonder if insult was invented as currency of embrace. I sometimes wonder if people think they are more effective in getting their point of view across, the more they are lacking in charity towards others. And it must be personal, it seems, to be effective. Unfortunately, Ad hominem diatribes confuse rather than clarify and indicate weak capacity for reasoning.

One problem I have observed with those who abused words is their poverty in self-mastery, which first takes away the capacity to listen; and then they quickly descend into a pit of emotion which leaves reason gravely embattled. Even in the most sanguine conjecture, the uneducated intellect allows a gabble of babble which even in the best of demagogues produces a yes chant, as in Hitler youth responding to Der Fuehrer’s rant. The illogic of their passionate recant sounds hollow to the trained mind, but they miss it. Only later is it folly evident to all who share the immediate source of the dissatisfaction he is playing on.

In the instant self-righteousness, the abuser of words dismisses Icons of struggle like Wole Soyinka, who stood up when they were hiding behind their mother’s wrapper. But in enjoying the adulation of people like himself, he misses the irony of the moment, that he who has no track of courage is trying to pull down mountains of commitment to things bigger than self.

The power of the word has been dealt a heavier hammer blow in Nigeria by both what has now come to be known as fake news and the more virulent identity theft for boosting a desired message. I have been so frequent a victim of both, but have sought fortitude to live with them. At a point when more than 60 per cent of comments ostensibly coming from me on twitter and Facebook were not from me, I actually chose to become inactive on those platforms. In going from one of the more active so-called Thought Leaders using new media to near zero origination from me, I found expression for my distaste for the new order.

We can see how terrible this abuse has become in General Ibrahim Babangida issuing a statement through his spokesperson and another person purporting to be president Babangida issuing another discrediting the spokesman’s release.

For people like me who have experienced identity theft by 419 people many times and its more dreadful; stealing of words through entering your space, it is like violation that is a moral equivalence of rape. I still recall once running into Nuhu Ribadu and warmly embracing him. He was shocked I would do that after what I wrote about him on the Net. That caught me off guard because I never wrote anything about him. Such identity theft is dangerous for the public sphere and democracy.

I would not let go of trust in the ability of history to sort wheat from chaff, truth from imposters posting, and fake, from real. This even as one beholds the weakness of Thought Leader wannabes who equate the decibel level of their lack of politeness with how macho they are. It is evident that bad upbringing is not a good substitute for strength of purpose.

Nigeria needs the deployment of the power of words. But it needs it from the lips of those who realise we are all God’s children deserving of equal dignity with a right under the Leviathan. It needs the power of words rolled off the tongues of those who know, like Stephen R Covey, in his eighth Habit, that the most important habit of the 21st century is probably the habit of helping people find their voice, so that the person of conscience knows that it is his duty even at the risk of personal loss to speak truth to power. So like Thomas Moore, that person with the power of the word, is prepared to go down to the Guillotine, but be embraced by the morality of the gift of truth. That is who the power of words should go to. Not to the extreme partisan who cannot see truth if it’s before his nose because he is obsessed with self and has little to give in true service of others.
Utomi, political economist and Professor of Entrepreneurship is founder of the Centre of Values in Leadership.

In this article:
Pat UtomiWole Soyinka
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