Sunday September 9 2018

Language, politics and why Museveni doesn’t want to use the word torture


By Norbert Mao

So why doesn’t President Museveni want to use the word torture in relation to the Arua 33? First let’s get the meaning of the word. Torture comes from the Latin word “tortus” which means the act of deliberately inflicting severe physical or psychological suffering on someone by another as a punishment or in order to fulfil some desire of the tortured or force some action from the victim.

Why do the perpetrators torture their victims? Some do as a punishment, for revenge, to intimidate, deter or to force an accused person to make a confession regardless of whether it is true or false.

Torture is not just physical. Some forms of torture are intended to subject a victim to psychological pain without leaving much evidence of physical injury. Sometimes torture is akin to a death sentence leading the victim to an early death.

This brings me to the way language is used to distort or misrepresent reality. In a 1946 essay titled Politics and the English Language, George Orwell lambasted the abuse of language to defend orthodoxies and the prevailing sentiments of those who dominate society.

According to Orwell, political language “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”. He believed that the vagueness and meaninglessness is intended to hide rather than express the truth.

In this landmark essay, Orwell says, “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”

In this game of insincerity and distortion, euphemism is used to sanitise the stench of reality. That is how a war that raged for 20 years in northern Uganda was called an “insurgency” and the concentration camps into which hundreds of thousands of civilians were forced were called “internally displaced persons camps” or simply “IDP camps”.

Bombing villages full of civilians and mass murder is called pacification. The thousands of people from the war areas arrested and detained without trial for years were simply called “lodgers”.

Language is used to vilify what the dominant leaders detest and sanitise the things they want to push down the throats of the people. It is a way to defend the indefensible. Calling things without bringing up the mental pictures of them.

That is why even though Museveni tells Kadaga not to hasten to use the “T” word, he himself doesn’t restrain himself from referring to his opponents as “hooligans” and “terrorists!”

Orwell tells us that it is a merry-go-round. We have slovenly language “because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

In a comparison bordering on the comic, he reproduces the contents of Ecclesiastes 9:11 as written in the King James Version then works out a modern translation he claims is of “the worst sort”.
Here is the King James: “I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

And now Orwell’s bastardised translation: “Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.”

This is the kind of double speak Museveni is indulging in. Even his lieutenants have learnt the art. Torture is now referred to as “restraint”. It is evasive, ambiguous language aimed at deceiving and confusing the unsuspecting public. It is language whose sole aim is to disguise the truth.