The Power of Words

The director of the University of Canterbury's Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies, in Christchurch, New Zealand,Professor Steven Ratuva. Picture: UNIVERSITY OF CANTERBURY

RENOWNED academic Steven Ratuva says as leaders, politicians must be responsible in the language they use in their campaign because the impact can be destructive in the long term, well after the elections are over.

Professor Ratuva, the director of the University of Canterbury’s Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies, in Christchurch, New Zealand, said politicians could provoke hatred, anger and incite violence “simply through their words”.

“Some do it deliberately and some innocently—the effects can be the same.

“When you add on the ethnic narrative, this becomes even more traumatising as people begin to feel that their group’s security is being threatened.”

He said politicians need to be very careful with their choice of words because “language is a powerful tool of mind manipulation and behavioural control”.

Professor Ratuva was referring to recent comments by political party leaders at rallies and campaign meetings.

“Simply using terms such as ‘bloodshed’ and ‘violence’ can be traumatising, no matter what the context of usage is,” he said.

“In a country which has gone through traumatising political violence in the form of coups, this can add to the trauma.

“Social-psychology research has revealed that the use of threatening words can trigger terrifying memories of people’s past violent experiences and this adds to long-term trauma.

“This can actually nurture violent behaviour in a subconscious way without people actually realising it. This has been found to be intergenerational.”

Prof Ratuva said research on the use and repetition of violent words and threats on children by parents has shown could induce violent behaviour and trauma.

“For instance, research in the US shows that use of negative labels and language of violence on black people triggers off memories of slavery and which sustains trauma.”

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