Words will always hurt

Agora Contributor: Nick Malkoutzis

When asked what Winston Churchill did to help win the Second World War, Labour Party leader Clement Attlee, replied: "He talked about it." The potential words have to inspire people and drive events should not be underestimated but their ability to do harm should not be taken too lightly either. The words we choose can just as easily cultivate division as they can create unity. It is truly regrettable that at this crucial time in Greece, some of the country’s decision makers have chosen to appeal to the devil inside us rather than the better angels of our nature.

It is a feature of Greek politics that phrases carrying heavy meaning are cast about with alarming ease. Every day words like tsunami, traitor, junta, genocide and extremist are uttered by mainstream Greek politicians on both sides of the spectrum, not just those on the fringes, with no regard for how their use lowers the tone of public debate and poisons people’s minds. Misinformed and unfounded allegations are lobbed into the wind with little regard for the truth. Perspective, balance and facts are steamrolled by this vulgar verboseness.

One of the gravest consequences of this tendency is that these linguistic darts pierce our will to separate fact from claim. From the mind of the average voter to the pages or screens of our country’s media, we are witnessing a perilous resignation that allows room for conjecture or even worse, bare-faced lies.

The crisis has given rise to all kinds of allegations that are repeated so often they become an accepted part of the discussion. They obtain the status of quasi-facts: Morsels of information that are accepted as being true because they have been heard so many times and few have the inclination to check their accuracy. One of very many examples is the claim that Greece’s 1967-74 military dictatorship balanced the budget and wiped out public debt even though about 30 percent of public spending was left off the books and the amount the country owed quadrupled during this period.

That’s why it was so appalling to hear Greece’s prime minister engage in this type of wilful negligence when he visited Malta this week. “We have as many unemployed as illegal immigrants [in Greece],” he told his counterpart Joseph Muscat during talks in Valetta about the European Union’s immigration policy. There are 1.3 million registered unemployed people in Greece at the moment. There is no credible study that puts the number of undocumented migrants at anywhere near this number. The most recent and plausible research carried out, by the ELIAMEP think-tank, indicated it was about 400,000. Samaras’s assertion is careless, at best. At worst, it is inflammatory and perilously close to the kind of language of incitement used by Golden Dawn, which claims there are 2 million irregular migrants living in Greece.

Had Samaras’s insular and deceptive allegations been made by the leader of a prominent and progressive European country, they would have prompted scrutiny and outrage. Instead, they were dismissed as loose words, allowed to drop to the floor to be swept up with the others, like hair clippings on a barber shop floor.

Samaras is by no means the only Greek politician guilty of this kind of behaviour. However, as prime minister his responsibility is greater. His words carry more weight. Unfortunately, the laxness with which such slovenly declarations are met, allows the practice to flourish. Words are separated from their meaning, the value they hold, and used as battering rams in Greece’s daily political battle.

On finding out that SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras is to be nominated by the European Left as its candidate for European Commission president, New Democracy launched a withering attack on the leftist politician and the parties that backed him. “After the extreme factions within Greece, Mr Tsipras is now investing in the extreme factions abroad,” said ND secretary Andreas Papamimikos of the decision taken by the grouping of leftist parties in the European Parliament.

This was followed by the conservatives asking Tsipras to account for the Communist past and every anti-capitalist or eurosceptic pronouncement made by the parties of the European Left. New Democracy even demanded that Tsipras explain the allegedly “extremist” behaviour of the youth wing of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia.

This is blatantly ridiculous. National parties have to make alliances with a broad range of groups from other European Union member states when they enter European Parliament. Tsipras cannot be held accountable for the behaviour and beliefs of every party in the European Left, just as Samaras is not responsible for everything said and done by those who make up the centre-right European People’s Party, such as Silvo Berlusconi and his PdL party. To label the European Left “extremist” is beyond the pale. It is an abuse of the meaning of the word and the principle of democracy that is supposed to exist within the EU.

This reckless use of language strips words of their relevance and context. For instance, should Tsipras’s response to ND’s accusations be to label Samaras an even more extreme “extremist”? After all, it was the head of a local chapter of the conservative party’s youth wing, ONNED, that murdered schoolteacher Nikos Temponeras in 1991 during a protest against an education bill. Should Samaras be held accountable for this? Where do we draw the line? The thoughtless use of such loaded words simply chops up our historical timeline and jumbles it into a mess from which we can never disentangle ourselves to gain some poise.

Last month, the leader of the anti-bailout Independent Greeks, Panos Kammenos, suggested residents of Halkidiki in northern Greece should “lynch” their local mayor because of high arsenic levels in the water supply. A couple of days later, he essentially admitted he did not understand the meaning of the word and tried to patch things up by saying he had meant a “political lynching.” Apart from emphasising the cavalier way in which words are used by Greek politicians, the incident also highlighted that this bombast simply covers up for their failure to deal with the pressing issues. In this case, a serious matter such as the safety of a village’s water supply was ignored as Kammenos’s reckless use of language attracted all the attention.

SYRIZA is also guilty of lobbing charged phrases into the political arena, like hand grenades from a foxhole. The leftist party has repeatedly used over the top terms to attack its political opponents. SYRIZA recently accused Samaras of employing “shadow state scheming” to victimise the opposition party and labelled Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras a “dealer” for the troika. On Friday, the leftists referred to the prime minister as an "obedient pupil" of German Chancellor Angela Merkel before decrying Samaras's failure to secure any concessions from his counterpart at the European Union leaders' summit. "The subservient Merkelite... does not want to and is not able to demand anything," said SYRIZA. Such phrases bring more shame on those using them than on their intended targets.

In fact, there are few parties or politicians who emerge with any degree of respectability with regards to the political language they use and the sentiments they wish to inspire.

We should bear no illusions about the fact that given where Greece finds itself, the language we use can go only so far in playing a part in our recovery. However, we should also not harbour any doubt that a change in the way our public dialogue is conducted can help elevate our thoughts and actions. To put it another way, if those in authority continue to spout words that are divisive and baseless, there can be few misgivings about where this country will end up.

2 Comment(s)

  • Posted by: Eleni Tsigante

    nisakiman's comment is correct. Nevertheless:

    The Greek public has had 16 months to evaluate the present parliament. Unfortunately the inflammatory rhetoric referred to here reflects a deeper shift in our politics.

    The parties in parliament now - with the exception of KKE, PASOK and ND - were formed in response to the crisis, or elevated from previous obscurity. Given certain personalities or political positions we expected a degree of inflammatory rhetoric (Kammenos) or extreme misbehaviour (Michaloliakos & Chrysi Avgi).

    The two newly elevated Left parties, DIMAR (coalition/now opposition) and SYRIZA (main opposition) - both forced into a difficult learning curve - have on balance acted professionally and effectively. Ditto KKE and PASOK.

    The real surprise (and shame) of this parliament - especially for ND voters - has been ND's behaviour. As the governing party it has the power to set the tone and atmosphere of parliament. In our national crisis, instead of constructive debate (a la Mitsotakis / Papandreaou), ND has not only refused to table important decisions, resorting to decree, but chosen to waste parliamentary time in a petty, ill-mannered demonisation of the opposition, while showing support for the insupportable ie Chrysi Avgi. Worse, ND's belated criminalisation of Chrysi Avgi was accompanied by an attempt to criminalise SYRIZA.

    Thus it became clear in this parliament that Samaras' ND has also transformed itself into a "new party", positioned far to the right of the political centre - to the discomforture of the majority of its voters.

    In the same way that ND had the least excuse for lack of statesmanship, it also bears the most responsibility for the frustrated unconstructive atmosphere of this parliament.

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  • Posted by: nisakiman

    That this type of inflammatory language should be unacceptable goes without saying. It is not, however, confined to Greece, or even mainstream politics. It has become common currency, and the spinmeisters in the various organisations, be they political or single-issue NGOs, know that headline-grabbing statements, even if refuted at a later date, have done their job. We see it in many situations nowadays. You only have to look at the anti-smoking rhetoric, most of it unsubstantiated rubbish,to see the way it works. If it makes the front page, it will lodge in the minds of the drones who believe what they read / see / hear in the MSM. And as long as the supine MSM is interested only in regurgitating what their masters tell them, we will continue to be fed misinformation.

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