New Pentecost Forum - Voices of Hope!
North Sydney, Feast of Pentecost, 27 May 2007
Denial of Language and Culture
Many of the English words for our most basic human functions come from Anglo-Saxon. It is instructive that the last mentioned word, sorry, a word of enormous consequences, is developing a history all of its own, sticking as it does in the craw of our political leaders, who cannot bring themselves to lead the nation by using it in an apology to our indigenous brothers and sisters.
Our beautiful but murderous English is swallowing the world in great gulps, threatening to install the uniformity of “might is right”. When I talk about Timor-Leste I sometimes meet people who find it hard to comprehend that we at Mary MacKillop East Timor are helping children to learn in their own languages, particularly the main one, Tetun. People say, “But wouldn’t you be teaching English???” It is the classic colonisers’ pitch so well known to our indigenous friends here: “They are OK insofar as they resemble us.”
The destruction of a people’s language is necessary to cultural attack. Denial of the languages of the small groups, the poor, the oppressed is a weapon used by those in power to subjugate. The Irish and the Polish peoples experienced this; each was denied the right to use their language as a way of loosening their grip on the cultural moorings which gave them a separate and unique identity.
The loss of any language is a loss to the whole human race apart from the death blow to the culture from which it comes and which it forms. Each language has a particular way of interpreting the world, adding to humanity’s store of truth and to its ability to perceive. We are probably unaware of the extent of the loss to the world of the 150 Australian Aboriginal languages which are now dead. One of the saddest stories I have heard is about a missionary in the Hunter Valley at the turn of the 20th century who spent decades recording an Aboriginal language from that area. At the end of his life he realised that he was the only person who could speak it.
The Timorese experience also includes concerted attacks on the indigenous tongues. Neglect on the part of the 450-year Portuguese colonisation left languages unrecorded, the bulk of the people illiterate and an attitude towards the supposed superiority of Portuguese all out of proportion to its usefulness.
Indonesianisation between 1975 and 1999 again demoted the local languages, causing the Timorese to have to fight to use them. Paradoxically, these attacks served to raise the profile of Tetun and other languages as a means of resistance, but a generally apologetic attitude remains, one which is still causing anger, anxiety and disenfranchisement among the Timorese even as we speak.
In our work we are heavily involved in the support and promotion of the Tetun language. Everything we do has its roots in literacy in that language. After many years of dedicated work our literacy programme Mai Hatene Tetun (Let’s Learn Tetun) now forms a large part of the Tetun curriculum across the whole nation of Timor-Leste, so that all the children in both State and Catholic schools will have the benefit of our fantastic programme which Bishop Belo asked us for over ten years ago.
Manipulation of Language in Australian Society
But here in Australia where one language dominates and where most of the people are literate we are also susceptible to loss of language, we are still at the mercy of the political will to use language to cloak and to manipulate. Our position as a rich and educated nation has not protected us against deceit in public life nor against attacks on our right to dissent.
We all have happy memories of Sir Humphrey Appleby and we have all no doubt enjoyed the rise of the jargon busters, those books which poke fun at the clichés and pretentious nonsense of the languages of modern life and business. Authors Don Watson, Julian Burnside and Stephen Poole come to mind.
Someone recently retired after many years in the taxation department often regaled us with examples from his workplace, e.g.
The strategic front end and consequent tactical realignment will be geared to the achievement of downstream client-centric goals.
It means, I think:
Both delivery of services and review of procedures will concentrate on the effects on clients.
We can laugh these off to a certain extent, although it is good to reflect that the people responsible for this particular obfuscation are people who are taking a lot of your money.
It is where similar manipulation of the language occurs in political life that the warning bells ring. Never has George Orwell’s observation been so true: “Political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”1
The evasions and lies which have issued from the present Federal Government illustrate the murder of our language as a source of true information upon which a person could base a sound opinion. They have had the effect of transforming Government pronouncements into simple babbling which has little meaning because one does not know whether to believe it or not.
The amount of money being spent on advertising by the Government is making people angry, an anger that such vast amounts of money are used on advertising at all, but also anger that one cannot necessarily trust what is said. We suspect the intention and so the language of the incumbents is being received as pure wind.
The attack on truth which is integral to the prostitution of language as practised by the present Federal Government is behind its inability to express the sorrow of the population at large for the treatment of the indigenous peoples of this land. It is behind the running sores of deceit in the relationship between Australia and Timor – the truth about the Balibó Five, the rape of the Timor Sea, the complicity of Australia in the invasion, and the current studied indifference to the huge human rights report on Timor which has pages of recommendations involving Australia.
As well as this skew towards deceit, there is another side to the abuse of language in this country. Besides manipulating words to deceive, leaders also deny opportunities for debate, let alone dissent. Lies and evasions are broadcast from above, replies from below are ignored, ridiculed or silenced.
Our increasingly muted population is being intentionally deprived of the means of dissent. This phenomenon is graphically described in the book “Silencing Dissent” by Clive Hamilton and Sarah Maddison. 2So we hear much talk nowadays of Australian history, mateship, Anzac, fair go, battlers, workers but underneath are attacks on organisations, threats to withhold funding from dissenting groups, the stacking of statutory authorities with yes-persons, increasingly centralised control of education, manipulation of media organisations and personalities, politicisation of the public service, the military and the intelligence services. The administration of the so-called “Freedom of Information” laws is a joke.
So serious is the political manipulation of the language and of the means of using language for the information of people, that the media organisation Reporters Without Borders ranks Australia low on its international scale of media freedom, well behind Slovakia, Portugal and Namibia.3
It is not just in the secular political sphere that language is manipulated. In the Church the single perception of the mystery of God and of Jesus allowed is the one issuing from Vatican corridors, as Jon Sobrino and others have found.4 As if God can be controlled, or parsed and analysed.
The move towards reinstating Latin in Church worship is symbolic of the present tendency to restorationism, as if the call of the Gospel and of the Council of our times is too difficult. Refuge is sought in the comfortable, controllable security of the imagined past.
One effect is the taming of the message of Jesus, curtailing it by a retreat into an inward-looking concentration on personal sin and personal salvation and a narrow interpretation of evangelisation as bringing people into the Church. There is little examination of conscience as to the extent to which Church is swayed by those with political power or dependent on the patronage of Governments.
Jesus himself had to bear this experience, as the opposition he engaged arose from within his own religion. The language of legalism was found wanting against his new language of freedom, plain speaking, inclusion and compassion. Now law, power, secrecy, collusion and domination challenge the Body of Christ once again, and each of us must set our faces to Jerusalem with him.
The remarkable story of the first Christian Pentecost is, as we know, the antithesis of the Tower of Babel. Babbling gives way to hearing a message in ones’ own language and incomprehension dissolves. The Spirit of God speaks using the same language Jesus used, intelligible language, human language, the language of hope and forgiveness and love. The days of Pentecost in which we live are the days when the Spirit of God “pours on God’s sons and daughters the gift of prophecy” where we dream dreams and see visions. The dreams and the visions are those of the heart of God. They are our dreams and visions, but we do not grasp them fully. They are always beyond us, realised imperfectly, and we long for their fulfilment.
We follow Jesus, and with him we are called to an intricate balancing act, that of holding together the twin challenges of “criticizing and energizing” as Walter Brueggemann put it.5
There is a DVD available called “A Hero’s Journey”6 which is a remarkable account of a journey of the ex-President of Timor-Leste, Xanana Gusmão, and is, I believe, an astounding witness to the human capacity to live a type of compassionate justice.
The journey Xanana makes is the journey to forgiveness. In making this personal journey he also calls the whole Timorese people to forgiveness as the only way forward and this in the face of extraordinary suffering endured by the people for so long. The journey is his call to forgiveness as the arena of justice, and his refusal to exact revenge.
His journey teaches that part of the theology of reconciliation which shows that the victim has the power to restore the humanity of both oppressor and oppressed by offering forgiveness before it is asked. Xanana’s embracing includes his Indonesian gaolers, General Wiranto, the Timorese man who betrayed him and the Timorese militia leaders who colluded with the Indonesian military. His stepping forward to these people is an energizing action, making the space into which they may be able to step with their humanity restored.
His criticism resides in the recognition of the appalling harm wrought by these people, actions which he condemns. He clearly states that the Timorese have indeed been sinned against and that their suffering matters, but in offering forgiveness he brings to the situation the energy of healing and of hope.
We are also called to criticise and energise. Our criticism is best reserved for ourselves, our culture, our complicity in matters of grave importance, like the scandal of starvation in the majority world while we, the minority, agonise over our share packages. How do we critique this? How do we deal with the rise of a public acceptance of torture as a valid means of protecting ourselves? That torture can be discussed at all as a way of dealing with problems indicates a fundamental change in our society as Raimond Gaita has argued.7
Truth is attacked by political leaders, the Church is becoming more and more insular, and our right to dissent in both arenas is curtailed. What to do?
Let us be tongues of fire, criticizing and energizing. Let us not allow the message of Jesus be tamed in us on the pretext of worshipping him. He said, “It is not those who say to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ who will enter the kingdom, but those who do the will of God.” (Matt 7:21-23)
The Word we have to share with the world is the person and the message of Jesus. It is not the Word that is lacking, but the voice upon which it travels. We are the voice. Let us take whatever mode of language is natural to us, both the language of word and the language of action, and let us not be cowed.
We are educated, affluent, fairly healthy, committed people. We have much work to do. Now is not the time to be silent. We have opportunities to criticize and energise, to make peace and to forgive in our own personal lives and we have an array of opportunities for a concerted effort to reclaim the threatened languages of truth and dissent.
What is needed is plain speaking. The first step for Australia at this time is surely to galvanise ourselves to find someone who can be trusted to lead the nation to step into the space already prepared for us by the Indigenous members of our family, to delve into the great cavern of human courage and truth which resides within us all, and say “sorry”.
* Sr Susan Connelly is a Sister of St Joseph, a Catholic religious congregation founded by Mary MacKillop. Her experience with the East Timorese people who endured 25 years of oppression motivated her to become involved with wider social justice issues. Her book of speeches Questions from the Asylum was published in 2002. Sr Connelly is the Assistant Director Mary MacKillop East Timor, an organisation fosters a range of educational opportunities for the advancement of East Timorese people.
1 Orwell, George. Politics and the English Language in George Orwell: Essays. (1968). Penguin Book, London. p. 359.
2 Hamilton, C. and Maddison, S. (2007). Silencing Dissent. Allen & Unwin, Sydney.
3 Reporters sans Frontiéres – Annusal Worldwide Press Freedom Index 2006
4 The Sentence Against Theologian Jon Sobrino Is Aimed at an Entire Continent Roma March 22, 2007http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/dettaglio.jsp?id=127821&eng=y
5 Brueggemann, Walter (1978). The Prophetic Imagination. Fortress Press, USA,
6 Gil Scrine Films, A Hero’s Journey (2006). www.gilscrinefilms.com.au
7 Gaita, R. There is no honour in doing evil for a good cause, Sydney Morning Herald March 23, 2006