In her very first interviews last week after being rescued in the jungles of Colombia, following six years of brutal captivity, Ingrid Betancourt remembered and reflected on a great many things.
But her most inspiring reflections, I think, were the startling words she uttered on two separate occasions last week about language itself – about words and their profound role in shaping human and political affairs.
“We’ve reached a point where we must
change the radical extremist vocabulary of hate and very strong words that
intimately wound human beings,” she said in a Monday
French radio, her voice clear and strong, her eyes alert and piercing.
So often in our private and public
discourse, we rush to solve our problems with words. We may use them
quickly, in defense or reaction, or we may spend time composing careful
screeds of reason and reflection.
In either case, we rarely stop to think about the very medium we are using
to douse the flames. What if we don’t know as much about language as we
thought? This question certainly goes to people who by the millions today are writing on blogs and web sites, and thus are profoundly shaping public discourse, as well as to professional writers, politicians, and full-time activists.
Is it possible that human beings
remain collectively quite ignorant of how language actually works in the
process of continuing individual and social hurts, and of easing suffering
What if, despite our best
intentions, we often are actually using gasoline instead of water to
extinguish our public and private conflagrations?
Last Friday, in a
second interview, Betancourt
elaborated on this point. She described how the tonally sensitive and timely
use of language is critical to achieve forgiveness first within oneself and
between individuals, and how that step in turn creates a broad foundation
for public peace.
Her points about language unfolded
after the interviewer, Stephen Sackur, asked Betancourt about the very
first moments in the rescue helicopter when she and her colleagues first
learned they were free.
“At that moment, you could see the
guys who had been responsible for your captivity, themselves bound,” Sackur
said. “One of them was naked. Did you feel immense anger? Did you want to go
and kick them?”
The Right Tone
“No, no,” Betancourt replied softly.
“I was kneeling, telling my companions not to do that. At that moment, for
some seconds, I prayed. I prayed to God. You know, I think it is very
important to be free, totally free. And I think that anger or seeking
revenge or bitterness is something like chains. The same chains they had us
wearing all those years. It’s like those kinds of chains.”
She used gentle, careful language
right there to break her chains.
“We are human beings, and human
beings are beings of words,” Betancourt added. “The word is what makes us
different. Words are our strongest weapons. We need to talk to make peace.
It’s not easy. We know in our everyday life in a family, when there is a
problem, that finding the right words, and saying them in the right moment,
with the right tone, is so difficult. Well, that also happens for a nation.”
All around the world today, in many
countries and spheres of life – scientific, journalistic, political,
religious, spiritual – more and more people, including lay people, are
considering language and its closely interrelated roles in daily life, the
media, public affairs and democratic systems.
Mystics like Eckart Tolle; scientists like George Lakoff; popular writers
like Deborah Tannen; and global economists like Amartya Sen are all
highlighting how the ethical use of language in both private and
public spheres, the two being blurred these days, is a key to human
Tannen, in her book “The
Argument Culture,” examines how the metaphors of “fighting,” “war” and
“aggression,” so deeply buried in human consciousness, covertly direct much
human behavior, much to our collective detriment. Learning and following
more peaceful and collaborative metaphors to describe human interaction,
self-representation and decision-making is critical to making peace as
humans, Tannen says.
Drew Westen and
other neuroscientists and psychologists meanwhile have empirically described
how language triggers discrete, measurable, predictable feelings and
psychological moods. They thus are manipulated by propagandists – such as
corporate advertisers and government leaders and political spinners – for
distinctly anti-social ends.
A Last Question
Such “descriptive misrepresentation”
degrades people for political ends and “seriously miniaturizes” human
beings, Sen says.
In a dreadful experiment in human
suffering and language that distinctly was not of her choosing, Ingrid
Betancourt reached similar conclusions.
At the end of the interview, the BBC
host asked her one last question.
“When you think about yourself,
Ingrid Betancourt, how have you changed over the last six and a half years?
How are you different now from the woman you were, running for president, in
“I’m a woman," Betancourt replied.
"I’m a fragile woman. The difference is that now I know that I’m fragile. So
I take care.”
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