Published May 30, 2011
Words are weapons. Controlling language—the meaning of words, which words exist and which do not—is the ruling powers’ fundamental premise to keep society stagnant or sway it toward their ideological direction.
This is for example known to Hannes Hólmsteinn Gissurarson, professor at the University of Iceland and Iceland’s primary laissez faire capitalism cheerleader. For more than three decades he has worked hard shaping the Icelandic language, adjusting it to the capitalist ideology and emptying it of words and ideas that might be used to resist capitalism. Book by book, article by article, he has rooted out the use of terms needed to maintain and expand the capitalist ideology. And his success is most obviously manifested in the tabooisation of the word ‘capitalism’ in everyday language, not due to its negative meaning but because its realisation has become an unquestioned part of our existence.
In addition to capitalism, words like ‘civilisation’, ‘peace’, ‘freedom’, ‘equality’ and ‘rights’—to mention only few examples of many—are all words that have gotten such a one-sided meaning that using them to discuss or criticise is almost impossible.
For the last seven years, the life of Iranian refugee to Iceland Medhi Kavyanpoor has been centred on his fight for his right to existence and to be recognised. He has employed every method, from attending meetings to going on hunger strike. On May 6, he walked into the Red Cross headquarters in Reykjavík, poured petrol over himself and threatened to ignite.
The major media outlets followed by reporting that an asylum seeker had been arrested after “barging into” the Red Cross and “causing explosiveness”. A police officer stated that the Red Cross staff had been in “emergency danger”, while the staff itself said that only Medhi’s life was threatened. The Interior Minister and the director the Directorate of Immigration argued that Medhi’s case was based on a “misunderstanding”. The editors of newspaper Morgunblaðið repeatedly framed the word ‘refugee’ within quotation marks, toning down its meaning and seriousness, questioning its actuality. Enwrapped in rhetoric that diagnosed Medhi and portrayed him as a psychotic, it looked like a united attempt to lighten his desperate act’s political weight.
This is not a unique incident. The majority of public discourse on refugees in Iceland is characterised by this same use of language. Regardless of whether it is conscious or not, it entails that refugees not only have to seek asylum in the corporeal world but also within the language. After seven years Medhi had enough, gave up on language and took action that needed no words of explanation.
But when looked at in close-up, his action was full of words, repressed for too long. And exactly this—how meaningful the act of self-immolation is as a political act—must be the main reason why Medhi was met with such a barrage of linguistic attacks.
THE SHADOW OF DEFINITION
Preventing discussion and action by eliminating certain words and controlling the meaning of accepted ones is a clever strategy. For example, Iceland’s Interior Minister, Ögmundur Jónasson, is currently pushing for expanded police espionage-permits, now referred to as “proactive investigation permits”. His main weapon are the words “universal organised crime”, but he is not referring to the international aluminium companies that operate in Iceland, all infamous for their world-wide crimes, human rights violations and arms production.
They are referred to as ‘companies’, ‘foreign investment’, ‘industry’—everything but gangs of organised criminals. In this case, an accepted definition of a particular word weighs heavier than the substantiality behind it. Another example of this is a recent verdict from the European Court of Human Rights, linguistically limited by the European Convention on Human Rights, which legitimised the infamous murder of a 23-year old boy by an Italian policeman during the 2001 anti-G8 riots in Genoa. A powerless person’s life was taken, no one can argue against that, but because the act did not fall under the correct definition it is not recognised as a human rights violation.
Similarly the definition of a ‘war crime’ does not work on the assumption that war is essentially a crime, but rather a legitimate situation where particularly defined crimes can take place. In the shadow of these linguistic definitions, the world’s self-declared civilised nation states and corporations can commit their crimes—not defined as crimes—undisturbed.
THE FIRST STEPS
It is in the shadow of such definitions that the Icelandic state’s felonious refugee policy is practised. While refugees have worked hard for the express purpose of obtaining an appropriate place in the dictionary, they have systematically been refused asylum or their cases aren’t taken up at all. They are ignored. There is a word for this and that word is ‘segregation’. It is the rule in Iceland, with the only exceptions being when foreigners can contribute to economic growth and/or assist Iceland in the competition of nation states.
Words are weapons and in the struggle against oppressing economical and state powers, language is as important a battlefield as the substantial world. Here in Iceland we can start by granting refugees an asylum within our language, by recognising their existence within it. That would be the first step: one small step for a man, one giant leap for the language.