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Words have power

  • Published at 06:20 pm November 16th, 2015
Words have power

First it was countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria. Then it became cities: Beirut, Paris. The media goes into overdrive. The news cycle inundates people with apocalyptic visions and prophecies. Citizens of the world begin to believe that the four horsemen have ridden into town, that Armageddon has consumed their planet.

The orchestra is guided by the conductor -- a media blitz -- to a frenzy. Midway through the first percentage of the carefully planned reporting on the latest act of barbarism visited upon the human species by madmen, fissures appear in the united front of mourners.

White lives matter more than brown ones. Those crying are shamed by those assuming the mantel of moral superiority. Their tears for Paris are somehow judged to be an affront to the memory of Beirut. Never mind that those shaming, emboldened by the self-important megaphones of social media, were themselves not crying about Beirut when it was terrorised.

The Western media collectively has taken Paris to heart, not for the first time. Western leaders have had much to say about Paris too, partly because what happened in the capital of France represents a direct threat to their lifestyle, partly because it fits their narrative of the War on Terror -- the rhetoric of which conveniently overlooks the West’s culpability, nay, almost exclusive responsibility in birthing the beasts that it browbeats about slaying.

Neither spoke about Beirut. A detailed look at the top dailies in Bangladesh shows the trend replicated. Paris dominated the news and opinion pages, Beirut barely registered. The Bangladeshi media can try to excuse itself.

For one thing, co-ordinated acts of violence in the cultural capital of the world is news. For another, Bangladesh is familiar with being overlooked. The clichéd reporting on the country saw CNN and BBC lead with the story of a ferry capsizing when Shahbagh was taking shape. Additionally, while no one was Avijit Roy, Oyasiqur Rahman, Ananta Bijoy Das, Niloy Chatterjee, or Faisal Arefin Dipan, world leaders and millions of global citizens marched for Charlie Hebdo.

Those two words remain synonyms for any discourse on the freedoms of speech and expression, freedoms which the oppressors have started to abuse to justify their oppression while denouncing rationality and reason under the guise of political correctness.

Bangladesh got a few mentions in the global media, and was then as quickly forgotten as the millions of innocents who have been killed in the Middle East, as the hundreds of thousands of innocents who were murdered in Vietnam and Cambodia. White lives matter more than any other colour, not just to other white people, but to the entire world.

That is why, for all the liberal and neo-liberal outrage, the ideal of beauty in the Indian sub-continent remains tied to fair skin. People should not be judged for this: Western soft power during and since the Cold War has given rise to ruling classes comprised of brown sahibs, a principle that was first implemented before the colonies gained their conditional independences.

These ruling classes have been in awe of Western hard power, have bought into its mythos, which includes never being wrong and never apologising.

People should not be judged, for that creates further divisions and classes. They can, however, begin to have a responsibility to improve themselves so that their view of the world is more wholesome and honest. Personal biases, compounded by the media business, makes it impossible to remember that the world and the human species are better than they have ever been.

The perspective needs to be corrected, but that can only happen if people broaden their minds and horizons. This begins with conversations, with debates and discussions, with inclusive dialogue, all of which are difficult in Bangladesh. People are being killed and imprisoned for their words, and every time there is a new victim, thousands other fall silent to avoid the same fate.

Religion and culture have both been politicised since before independence, a trajectory that has been maintained since. The space for free thinking, for genuine free speech and expression, is almost entirely absent.

Starting Thursday, for three days, Bangladesh will try to prove that there is still hope. While previous editions of the annual literary showpiece have had an air of elitism, of nefarious agendas, there are individuals dedicated to presenting Bangladesh to the world, to expanding the safe space for words in the country, to being inclusive, who are involved with the rebranded Dhaka Literary Festival. They promise to make the festival for, by, and about Bangladesh, and, if Bangladesh is to be given its dues by the world, it needs to do so on its own terms, in its own words.

The festival is an important part of the exhausted machine that is working overtime to achieve those wider goals.

Esteemed writers and thinkers from across the world are defying the fearmongering of their governments to attend the festival, to show their solidarity with Bangladeshis as so many did with Charlie Hebdo and Paris. The proud citizens who, shorn of partisanship, intolerance and hatred, wish to preserve the soul of their nation need to descend on Bangla Academy to make it a real celebration.