It’s not what you say

Dara E Healy -
Dara E Healy -

Culture Matters

IT IS NOT possible to legislate stupidity. He says a great deal without saying anything. The fake news media. They are cockroaches. Don’t bother to waste your paper to send me any letter. You will get hurt if you provoke us.

Over the past few years, I have been struck by the shift in language that we use to communicate with each other. Lately, these thoughts have intensified as communication norms governing human relations appear to be changing before our eyes. As Mother Nature continues to keep her metaphorical knee on our necks, are we slowly inventing new standards of diplomatic and interpersonal engagement that reflect the trauma of our times?

Recently, Archbishop Jason Gordon lamented that “we disrespect each other in such brutal ways.” He spoke of the trauma in our families, where communication is often a battle zone, quite literally a war of words.

What struck me were his comments about our ancestral wounds. In the Caribbean, we have been subjected to brutishness and cruelty for generations. It helps explain the presence of toxic behaviour in our public service. And it provides insight into the communication style of many post-colonial leaders around the world.

I wondered why humans even felt the need to invent diplomacy, the art of sovereign states communicating with each other to fulfil foreign-policy objectives. Ancient Egyptians used treaties “from about 1280 BCE, between Ramses II of Egypt and Hittite leaders.”

In ancient India, a complex system of diplomats and spies to gather intelligence was developed.

Archaeological discoveries prove that envoys, people delivering messages, were used during the height of Mayan civilisation.

At home, in 1699, Hyarima garnered support from warring peoples to defeat Spanish tyranny. And in 1881 Joe Talmana used negotiating skills to convince stickfighters, jamettes and others to bury self-interest in the name of saving our Carnival.

“I'd rather see a Yankee talking to my girlfriend/For with the Yankee man, I wouldn't be angry/Sooner or later he will spend his money freely/These people from Oxford University/Intend to get through with their big words and diplomacy.”

In his song English Diplomacy, the Mighty Sparrow poked fun at the different ways in which the British and the Americans used their diplomatic abilities. For him, diplomacy was simply a fancy means to get one’s way.

In reality, over the centuries diplomacy would be influenced by European and British practices, America norms and even the RC Church. In France, Cardinal Richelieu defined diplomacy as “a continuous process of negotiation.” Such polite diplomacy allowed Europeans in 1884 to casually divide Africa into colonies that they would rule for decades and prosper from the natural resources of the continent.

Today, this action by European powers in 1884 would be viewed as an extreme distortion of what negotiation is meant to achieve. But it also points to the importance of power in any relationship.

As the Cold War progressed and nations took ideological sides, language between nations became increasingly acrimonious. Newly independent countries felt they needed to assert their power at global forums by speaking in their nation languages. In TT, from Bhojpuri to patois and Trini twang – we also created language to reclaim our power.

“Doomsday reach, boy plan yuh retreat/Cause de children comin tuh take back de street/De power ah de word in de conscious stylin/Paving de way for ah brand new morning/I say de power ah de word in de rapso stylin/Rockin de roots of de Vampire System.”

Words have power. As 3canal say in their song, words can pave a way. But words can also rob someone of their right to self-actualise. Survivors of abuse are familiar with the ability of words to disempower. Children who are told that they are stupid eventually believe the insults and stop trying to prove otherwise. Women who are regularly called whores or bitches invariably absorb such labels. To paraphrase Fanon, this is “the language of pure force” which brings “violence into the home and into the mind...”

In 2021, much of our planet is in crisis. How do we see the value of diplomacy in our current reality?

The ability to negotiate may well be the difference between saving lives and creating panic. As we push through significant trauma and pain, we have an opportunity to use words to heal ancestral wounds.

It is not always about what we say, but in an uncertain world we should remember that words are often all we have to safeguard what power we have left.

Dara E Healy is a performance artist and founder of the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN


"It’s not what you say"

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