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Eke Ndukwe Kalu: The Power of Language

In sociology, there are three dominant theories used to critique and predict human nature and interactions. They are structural functionalist, conflict and symbolic interactionist perspectives. The first two arguments are like opposite ends of the scale, they critique yet complement each other. The structural functionalist recognises society as the sum of its parts. It posits that there are inherent structures – such as a family, school, media, religion, government – that work to create a stable and functional society. It defines moral and constitutional breakdown as a symptom of the flaws and faults of these structures in society. 

The conflict perspective rejects this notion, instead, it defines society as the eternal antagonism of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie (the working class and the rich). The inherent structures then present in a structural functionalist view supposedly for stabilization and growth are mere tools for continued subjugation by the rich in the conflict perspective. These two arguments possess great merit, correctly interpreting the black and white broad strokes of present realities. Yet, they fail to define the nuance that links the rich and the poor, the structures, and the masses: language. They are, therefore, often limited to political rhetoric by both sides of the political spectrum, more intent on stalemating each rather than doing anything else.

There’s a third sociological inquiry: the symbolic interactionist perspective.

The symbolic interactionist perspective is obsessed with language, hence its name ‘symbolism’ and ‘interaction.’ It defines the contrast between denotation and connotation, interpreting this difference as an important tool in analysing the scope of human behaviour. Denotation is the literal or primary meaning of a word in contrast to the feelings or ideas that the word suggests. Connotation is the idea, feeling, or undertone which a word invokes, in addition to its literal or primary meaning.

The basis of human interaction is largely intelligent verbal and written communication, not grunts or whistles, but clearly defined words, symbols, and writings.

These words and writings only have power when they have meaning, and to interpret is to give meaning. The very nature of language is primarily subjective because it involves interpretation. Therein lies both the limitation and the danger of the power of language. Society’s inherent structures and the bourgeoisie need a way to communicate – news articles, opinion articles, films, books, religious texts, textbooks and so on, all play their roles. How we define, or how we are told to define communication is very crucial to how we live. The difference between starting a fight and stopping it can sometimes be a single word.

Culture is, of course, a rich source of context for language. For instance, consider what it would mean for a young Nigerian to announce himself as both atheist and gay to his community or friends. Paraphrasing a colleague, these are perhaps two of the biggest sins that can either get you blacklisted or possibly killed. Why then do the chances of this significantly reduce when declared in certain other countries? These words mean literally the same things, right? But not really for different people.

What then really is the power of intellect and reasoning if I could get a man killed or celebrated depending on how I choose to introduce him to two different groups of people? Those who shape reasoning and debate for the masses must then be those who understand language and can bend it to their will.

Consider again Nigeria’s socio-political landscape, why do you think sensitive conversations on Nigeria’s infrastructure can be so easily turned into endless debacles of a supposed North versus Southern agenda. It is because inherently, in the minds of Nigerians, these two words, North and South, have come to mean very different things and have the emotional resonance to broaden the scope of important issues, thereby watering down their significance. To the southern mind, the north is nothing but conservative, unprogressive, and poor. To the northern mind, the south is immoral, decadent and self-destructing. Politicians, media, popular rhetoric from secessionists and warmongers actively contribute to these ideas. And so, the ideas of the masses are shaped by a handful of people. 

This limiting nature of language plays into every aspect of our lives. Goods and services are determined based on want and need. How much of language is used to tell you what you should want? And what you should need? Think betting companies who portray gambling as a safe and easy way into a life of affluence and women? Think tobacco and alcohol companies who portray alcohol, drugs, and parties as the lifestyle of the rich and famous? Think beauty and fashion lifestyle experts who promise that their clothes, perfume, or product is the difference between you and social acceptance.

How much of our ideas are really our own?

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