By Farooq A. Kperogi
The Buhari government’s battle to strangulate the masses through petrol price increase and other infernal neo-liberal policies is being fought on both the existential and semantic planes. Like past governments, this government is deploying intentional obfuscation, evasions, and outright prevarications to pollute national discourse and disguise the uncomfortable truth of its war on the poor. This column will lay bare some of these linguistic deceptions.
Some people may wonder why, since last week, I have been concerned with uncovering the deceit in the political language of this government instead of writing about everyday grammar and usage. Well, learning to read between the lines, not just on the lines, is an even more useful skill than mastery of the mechanics of language.
As eminent American linguist William D. Lutz once said, “There is more to being an effective consumer of language than just expressing dismay at dangling modifiers, faulty subject and verb agreement, or questionable usage. All who use language should be concerned whether statements and facts agree, whether language is, in Orwell’s words ‘largely the defense of the indefensible’ and whether language ‘is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.'”
Devious, manipulative language by government has real material consequences. It can literally kill. We are already seeing the prelude to that in Nigeria. People have been so thoroughly manipulated by the doublespeak of this government that they are even willing to commit self-immolation in defense of government’s oppression of them.
In 1975, an American linguist by the name of Terrence P. Moran wrote a thoughtful, widely cited linguistic essay on a scientific experiment conducted on rats. In the experiment, a group of rats was deliberately starved for an extended period. After the period of the starvation, the rats were divided into two groups. The first group was fed with a sugar-and-water solution, and the other group was fed with a mere non-nourishing-saccharine solution. Both groups felt “satisfied” after being fed, although saccharine solution doesn’t nourish. The saccharine-fed rats merely experienced an illusion of satisfaction. As you would expect, the rats fed on saccharine all died while the ones fed on sugar and water lived and thrived.
“This experiment suggests certain analogies between the environments created for rats by the scientists and the environments created for us humans by language and the various mass media of communication. Like the saccharine environment, an environment created or infiltrated by doublespeak provides the appearance of nourishment and the promise of survival, but the appearance is illusionary and the promise false,” Morgan wrote.
Can you find parallels between the experiment on rats—and Morgan’s profound extrapolation from it—and the current situation in Nigeria? If you haven’t, let me help. Government first engendered a deliberate, cripplingly severe artificial scarcity of petrol for weeks. During this period, petrol prices went through the roof. People got habituated to the scarcity and to the extortionate prices. Just then, government made the products available and increased the official price, which is significantly lower than the extortionate prices of the scarcity period, yet way higher than the price in the pre-scarcity period.
This created a sensation of relief for everybody. But, as it true of the experiment with the rats, there are basically two groups of Nigerians: the wealthy and the poor. The sensation of satisfaction that the poor felt—and still feel— in the aftermath of the availability of petrol, which caused some of them, especially in the north, to demonstrate in favor of “petrol subsidy removal,” is false and illusory. It is mere suspended animation created by government propaganda and wily manipulation of language with the aid of the mass media. To quote Morgan, “an environment created or infiltrated by doublespeak provides the appearance of nourishment and the promise of survival, but the appearance is illusionary and the promise false.”
Wait and see what will happen to the poor, helpless people who have not only internalized their oppression but are defending and celebrating it. Marxists call this false consciousness.
The demonization of “subsidy”
One of the biggest linguistic casualties in this undeclared but nonetheless noxious war on the poor is the term “subsidy.” Government propaganda has gone on rhetorical overdrive to demonize the word, to make it into what American scholar Richard Malcolm Weaver, Jr called a “devil term.” (Weaver later said, “A society’s health or declension was mirrored in how it used language.”)
When you demonize a good word, strip it of all its approbatory associations, you prepare uncritical minds to accept actions that are inimical to their interests. In their book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky perceptively show how the ruling elite in the United States contort the English language to blackmail the poor. Institutional benefits for the poor are ridiculed, and terms like “social welfare” are now invariably said with a tone of disapproval. But welfare packages to the rich and the powerful are called “bailouts” and have a tone approval about them.
As they pointed out, in democracies “when the state loses the bludgeon, when you can’t control people by force and when the voice of the people can be heard, … you have to control what people think. And the standard way to do this is to resort to what in more honest days used to be called propaganda. Manufacture of consent. Creation of necessary illusions.”
Just like the American ruling elite have used the media to demonize “welfare,” the Nigerian ruling elite is launching a sustained, all-out linguistic attack on subsidy.
But what’s wrong with subsidy? At its root, subsidy, derived from Anglo-Norman French subsidie (ultimately from Latin subsidium), means “assistance.” In modern usage, it means “a sum of money granted by the government or a public body to assist an industry or business so that the price of a commodity or service may remain low or competitive.” According to Investopia.com, “subsidy is usually given to remove some type of burden and is often considered to be in the interest of the public.” What’s wrong with that?
Up until this year, “subsidy” was a positive word in Nigeria. In fact, during the 2012 mass revolt against petrol price increase, a protester in Kano inscribed this pithy, profound words on the back of his shirt: “Subsidy is my soul.” Of course, subsidy is the soul of poor, struggling people. Without it many of them will simply wither and die. This is true not just in Nigeria but all over the world. Every government in the world, especially in the West, subsidizes basic goods, including petrol and agriculture products. As I pointed out in a previous article, America spends more than $10 billion yearly to subsidize petrol for its citizens and another $20 billion to subsidize agriculture, in addition to sundry economic liberties for its citizens. The European Union also spends billions on subsidies.
One of the sneaky ways this government tries to hoodwink people into thinking that subsidy is bad for them is to associate it with corruption. But that’s a false association. There is nothing in subsidies in and of themselves that makes them corrupt. Corruption in subsidy is failure of government. Government has a responsibility to ensure that corruption is curbed in the administration of subsidies so that poor people who are the intended beneficiaries of the subsidies aren’t robbed of them. Any government, not least one government that derives the social and moral basis of its legitimacy from its anti-corruption credentials, that can’t eliminate corruption and ensure that people who need subsidies get them, has no reason to exist.
Based on the fuzzy, fraudulent association of subsidies with corruption, the federal government announced late last week that it has removed subsidies on fertilizers. It later “clarified” that it will only remove the subsidies after it has “met farmers` conditions of prompt availability and affordability of the commodity.” Same difference.
After fertilizer subsidies, other subsidies will follow, and the World Bank/IMF dream of “rolling back the state” in Third World countries would be complete–at least in Nigeria. But what is being rolled back is the obligation of the state to its citizens, not the privileges the ruling elite enjoy.
Since the political elite consume more than 80 percent of the state’s resources, what would their reason for being be? How about the subsidies they enjoy? Who will roll those back? Why do poor people have to suffer because of the corruption of the rich? Why does the government that has sworn to protect all citizens say it’s incapable of fighting elite corruption that stands in the way of delivering help to people who need it?
Deregulation/Liberalization: When Channels TV asked Ibe Kachikwu to explain to Nigerians what exactly the government was doing with its petrol price hike, he was caught flatfooted. “I try not to get into the semantics of deregulation or no deregulation but the reality is that we are liberalizing.” Steady, Kackikwu, whoa there! Whoa!
It was French philosopher Voltaire who once said, “If you wish to converse with me, define your terms.” Kachikwu can’t define his terms, doesn’t know if what government is doing is “deregulation or no deregulation,” but he is certain that they are “liberalizing.” Talk of obfuscation.
Dr. Kperogi can be reached through Twitter: @farooqkperogi
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