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Reading between the lines as language is co-opted

As language became more politicised and more opaque, new or unfamiliar phrases and figures of speech became easier to understand not with a dictionary, but by association.

It is becoming near impossible to parse language these days. In the past, when someone used a phrase or figure of speech that one did not quite understand, one knew that it was usually one’s own ignorance and not someone else’s deeper conspiracy to mislead.

Later, as language became more politicised and more opaque, new or unfamiliar phrases and figures of speech became easier to understand not with a dictionary, but by association. Thus anyone with some knowledge of the US knows, for example, that being ‘pro-life’ is not about being against war. The term is instead a shorthand expression used by conservatives to describe their opposition to a woman’s right to abortion. And ‘pro-choice’ is the self-description of those who believe that a woman has the right to decide on her own reproductive trajectory.

But what do we do now that such associative meanings are no longer clear-cut either? What do we do when an allegiance to ‘democratic principles’ is affirmed by those who believe that democracy means bowing to the will of the majority as well as by those who believe that democracy entails protecting the rights of the minorities? All that we can say is that the word ‘democracy’ obviously has some inherent positive connotation if such opposite positions want to claim its banner.

I was reminded of this co-opting of morally or emotionally compelling language a few weeks ago upon reading about the official launch of something called the ‘Geneva Consensus Declaration on Promoting Women’s Health and Strengthening the Family’. My immediate reaction was a yawn; one more United Nations Declaration — toothless, even if it is signed on by most nations of the world, and bound to be boring, longwinded and politically correct on top of that.

This first conclusion was supported by a glazed glance at the document — each clause and paragraph began with one of a handful of words over-used in UN Declarations — reaffirm, emphasise, recognise, ensure, improve and secure, build, advance, support, engage. What’s not to like about the UN’s noble intentions and its difficult, underlying task of usually getting some 150 governments to sign on to what it sets its mind to — human rights, HIV and AIDS, universal health coverage, rights of indigenous peoples, and so on.

But then the bells started to ring. Too many things about this declaration did not seem quite right. First, its launch was co-hosted by an avowed enemy of the UN — the US government. After all the badmouthing and resource-cutting of the UN that President Trump has engaged in, it seemed very odd that his government would actually host the launch of a UN declaration. Secondly, it was signed by just 32 countries — one of the important reasons for the blandness of many UN resolutions is that these documents have to be greatly watered down to arrive at a consensus among its 193 member states.

But its most puzzling feature was its title itself: Promoting Women’s Health and Strengthening the Family! These — Women, Health, Family — are all important keywords that the UN would not have any ostensible problems with, at least at first glance. As a member of the Guttmacher-Lancet Commission on Reproductive and Sexual Health and Rights, I have a special academic as well as policy interest in these questions, and so it soon seemed a duty to read this Declaration more fully. And what an eye-opener it is — it uses the progressive language of the UN and of women’s rights advocates to press for exactly the opposite. In essence, this document is a call to increase the restrictions on women’s reproductive health, mainly on abortion, and a call to reject any non-conventional non-heterosexual rights to building and belonging to a ‘family’.

These are its central propositions, couched in the unimpeachable language of human rights and human security and the family as the ‘natural and fundamental group unit of society’. The document also uses the more socially acceptable language of ‘equal rights of men and women to all civil and political rights’.

The central regressive slant of the Declaration explains both the small number of its signatories and their questionable record of protecting the reproductive rights of women or the human rights of sexual minorities — in addition to the US, the list includes Hungary, Brazil, Indonesia, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Uganda and Zambia. Poland recently further tightened its already restrictive abortion laws. Within the US, President-elect Joe Biden will have to press hard to suppress similar initiatives.

Other governments with very different agendas can also feel more emboldened by such smart ‘moral’ messaging to push different forms of intrusions into the private lives of individuals. Using the language of altruism, we already have waiting parliamentary Bills about the need for ‘population control’ in India, even as we also have the more naked assertion by extra-parliamentary members that it is in fact the reproductive rights of certain groups that should be suppressed.

By sprinkling their document with the words, phrases and sentences long considered the preserve of socially advanced groups, the signatories of this Geneva Declaration can now claim the moral high ground. For we are all human rightists now. Haven’t we just said so?

The writer is Professor, Cornell University. National Editor Shalini Langer curates the fortnightly ‘She Said’ column

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