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US President Donald Trump referred to Haiti, El Salvador and certain African nations as ‘shitholes’. Photo: Bloomberg
US President Donald Trump referred to Haiti, El Salvador and certain African nations as ‘shitholes’. Photo: Bloomberg

When the words matter

Words conceal, lightly, the ideas that are baked into our language and, consequently, into the ways we think.

Actions, according to unnamed sources, speak louder than words. But that is to miss the point about words. Great cruelty is often instigated through the silence of words on mute sheets of paper. Actions are loud, but they are finite, expendable. Bad men do cruel things. Evil men write manifestos.

Words matter. They reflect choice. They project power. Which is why airports, museums and even entire states are named and renamed. Why is one train a bullet and the other high-speed? Perhaps because a bullet train is a paradigm shift, while a high-speed train sounds like an improvement.

Words also have history. In their continued usage over time, words conceal, lightly, the ideas that are baked into our language and, consequently, into the ways we think. For instance, consider the word “villain". In many readers, the words immediately conjure up images of Pran, Prem Chopra, Rohit Sharma, Keerikkadan Jose and so on. The cinematic villain. The public pariah. Perhaps there is even an element of camp to the word “villain" these days. Serious movies don’t have villains anymore—only rivals and foes and adversaries and antagonists.

The word villain, however, has etymological roots not in evil or in crime. But in upper-class feudal contempt of the poor. As the British Library’s website explains: “The word derives from the Latin villanus, meaning ‘one attached to a villa or farmhouse’. Villanus moved into the English language in two forms: villain defined by the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) as ‘a low-born, base-minded rustic’ (from c.1303), and villein ‘one of the class of serfs in the feudal system’."

Over time, the word villain came to signify not the serf, but evil and criminality. Because obviously, what else was the serf or the peasant, to the feudal lord, but a no-good purveyor of mischief and criminality? Consciously pick through the language we use everyday, and such biases and perspective are everywhere.

Words have history, but they also matter to historians. And not just because words are sources. For instance, Western-origin scholars of Indian or Chinese or Islamic history are often criticized if they do not fluently speak, read and write the language of their source material. Because any distance from the word is, supposedly, distance from the truth.

Thus, words matter, and they have history. But that is not to castigate every person who uses the word villain incognizant of its etymology. But what about much more straightforward words like shithole, shit, shitty and stinking?

There has been much debate about one alleged recent usage of one of these words. But there have been two other alleged incidents. What to make of all of this?

Earlier this month, according to some senior sources, though others have denied it, US President Donald Trump referred to Haiti, El Salvador and certain African nations as “shitholes".

Then on Saturday, after an English Premier League football match between West Bromwich Albion and Brighton, the Cameroonian Brighton defender Gaetan Bong accused WBA striker Jay Rodriguez of having racially abused him with the words: “you’re black and you stink".

The very next day, after a Levante versus Celta Vigo match in the Spanish Primera Division, Levante’s Jefferson Irma told the press that Celta’s Iago Aspas had called him “black shit".

Shithole. Stinking black. Black shit.

All alleged incidents, yes. But you don’t have to look hard to see the pattern. If they took place, these are unvarnished acts of racism.

This writer was immediately reminded of what must surely be one of the most infamous advertisements of all time. In 1899, Pears Soap ran an ad in American magazines that featured a naval officer washing his hands at a sink. In one corner of the artwork you can see a missionary handing a bar of soap to a grovelling “native". The copy below the art is... memorable: “The first step towards lightening The White Man’s Burden is through teaching the virtues of cleanliness. Pears’ Soap is a potent factor in brightening the dark corners of the earth as civilization advances, while amongst the cultured of all nations, it holds the highest place—it is the ideal toilet soap."

Thus, the White Man’s Burden is not just taking religion to the godless. Schools to the ignorant. Trains and roads and markets and art and architecture and all the other accoutrements of civilization to the uncivilized. But also soap. For there are people out there who stink. And the first step on their way to civilization is a good scrubbing.

In hunting down images of that Pears’ ad, I came across several other examples of the colonial and racial connotations of the “unclean coloured". For instance, another infamous American ad from the late 1800s or early 1900s features a barefooted black child in rags facing a white child in spotless clothes. The white child holds a bar of Fairy soap in her hands, and seems to ask the question that is printed below: “Why doesn’t your mamma wash you with Fairy soap?"

What is so revealing about these incidents, two of which seem spontaneous utterances on the football pitch, is that they are such transparent expressions of a deeply embedded racism. Expressions of a racist perspective established decades, even centuries ago, yet alive and thriving in 2018. One great mistake is to think that these so-called “shithole" countries can somehow launder their reputation by cleaning themselves up, getting richer and becoming more “Western". As professional footballers Gaetan Bong or Jefferson Irma can perhaps attest, you can’t reform away the colour of your skin. And for many people, that is all that matters.

Déjà View is a fortnightly conversation on history. Read Sidin Vadukut’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/dejaview

Comments are welcome at views@livemint.com

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