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Friday, January 27, 2023

Philosophy of speaking and contemporary verbal norms

I am curious to know what has happened to his philosophy of speaking for which he had paid a high physical price as a child for expressing it in an impolite way.

‘APA, do you speak with your mouth or with your a***?’ This is how a boy in his early teens verbally charged an official in the presence of some of his friends including myself. The official was a residential social worker in an externally funded rehabilitation centre located in a poor sub-district in north Bengal. The centre provided free food, accommodation, clothes, education, and other essential services to hundreds of underprivileged children. The institution also arranged vocational education for them so they could earn their living and support themselves and their poor families when they graduated and returned to the community. This friend and I lived together in the centre for a number of years with other children.

The interaction with the woman official which ended with the above words took place sometime in the early 1980s when I was probably in Year 5 or 6. The boys in the centre usually had only one shirt and a pair of shorts. Around the time of the incident, many children’s shirts had been torn from overuse and so we needed new ones. The residential worker who looked after our wellbeing had ordered the garments for us. However, she had missed a couple of deadlines for handing the shirts. When a group of children approached her one morning, she gave us a new date. This provoked my friend to make the offensive comment.

What my friend said was unacceptable and unforgiving. And he was not forgiven. When another official heard the incident and saw his woman colleague in tears in humiliation, he collected the boy and gave him a good beating. This official was a strong man who also taught us basketball outside his official portfolio. My poor friend succumbed to the physical assaults and was hospitalised immediately.

Once the news of his hospitalisation spread among the children, they broke the rules and came out of the centre and reported to the students in a nearby college. The centre was soon sieged, and the authorities were forced to not only sack the revenging official but also arrange safe travel for him to Dhaka on the same day.

My friend’s verbal crime was inexcusable which led to serious consequences for the officials as well as for himself. He violated the rules of good conduct with officials who worked for our wellbeing. This kind of behaviour is unexpected of children in any institution. Even those of us who were with him did not anticipate that he could say what he said, boldly and confidently.

I did not condone my friend for his verbal offence but revisiting the whole episode as an adult after almost four decades presents some new insights. This reflection is the subject of the present writing. If we are magnanimous enough to put aside the offence, we may be able to come to an understanding of the underlying philosophy of speaking upheld by the child. For example, it may be possible to argue that he was guided by a belief which states that human beings should be true to their words. They can’t change their words or promises freely. To him, it was unethical and unacceptable. He was thus a believer in a higher ideal — an ideal which demands people to keep their words and not break their promises or change their minds.

He expressed this philosophy by referring to human speech and to the source thereof. He might have assumed that human beings speak with only one organ which is the mouth. Although we have many organs in pairs including our eyes, ears, hands, and legs, we only have a single source for speech. Based on this, there is a folk assumption that our speech should be true, consistent, and reliable. The assumption bears some similarity with Grice’s maxims of conversation. As we don’t have many mouths, we are not supposed to indulge in double-talk or saying one thing now and another thing at another time. If we do so, it means we are not showing respect to our speech organ, the mouth. Doing double-talk is unbecoming of the mouth. Therefore, it can be suggested that whatever deviates from the truth, the promised or the agreed upon is not the work of the mouth; it is the act of another organ which is originally not meant for speech.

I wonder what has happened to this speaking philosophy of my friend in the past few decades. I have not seen him since leaving the centre in the late 1980s. Like me, he also immersed in the real world where things were much more complex than what we had experienced in the rehabilitation centre. Our joining the world was a case of losing innocence and embracing experience.

I also wonder how my friend reacted to the world where he would have found that it was common for people to say many different things in one breath; in fact, it is rather uncommon to maintain consistency and ethicality in saying what they say. How has he embraced what people say and do in their everyday life and the earth-and-sky difference between them? Specifically, how has he lived through the recent post-truth era when people in power have blurred the boundaries of lies and truths for vested interests of different sorts? How would he interpret the recent goings in the world which have many different directions and contradictions that, in his view, would not have come from the mouth?

We can consider a few concrete examples. Globally, how does he make sense of the western assessment of the Ukraine-Russia case vis-à-vis the Israel-Palestine case? Regionally, how does he digest the many promises of the Indian authorities that their Border Security Force would not shoot another Bangladeshi again on the India-Bangladesh borders only to shoot them again in a few days? Nationally, what would he say about the political demand for the caretaker government in the 1990s and the same caretaker government being thrown into the bin in the space of a couple of decades by those who had demanded it? And how does he interpret the current demand for this form of government by those who initially refused it to the then opposition in the 90s?

I wish I could reconnect with my friend in this age of connectivity and have an understanding of his perspectives on things — things that he had believed as a poor child and things that he may have seen and experienced in the world in the past decades after saying goodbye to the rehabilitation centre. Maybe he lost his innocence as soon as he was thrown into the world of reality, or joined the bandwagon, or became a victim of his ideal. I am curious to know what has happened to his philosophy of speaking for which he had paid a high physical price as a child for expressing it in an impolite way.

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Dr. Obaidul Hamid is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Queensland in Australia. He researches language, education, and society in the developing world.

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