Language and construction of stereotypes

by Anika Mahin | Published: 00:09, Feb 21,2019


WHILE writing about language and construction of image which in itself leads the way to the act of creating stereotypes, a quotation from Ngugi WA Thiong’O comes to mind, ‘We must be careful with the vocabulary that defines us ... to not internalise the negativity.’
The study of language within the paradigm of history and politics is rather a fascinating one. As Thiong’O said somewhere, in the colonial conquest, ‘language did to the mind what the sword did to the bodies of the colonised.’ Language indeed acting as the tool of domination and control made the whole colonial endeavour bear fruition and what made this possible was the power over representation.’ Similarly, Edward W Said stated, ‘language itself is a highly organised and encoded system which employs many devices to express, indicate, exchange messages and information, represent, and so forth. In any instance of at least written language, there is no such thing as a delivered presence, but a re-presence, or a representation.’ In the colonial context, the colonisers represented and the colonised was represented and the one who represented yielded the ultimate power. This complex phenomenon of representation worked via the creation of ‘us’ and ‘other’ binary and in time, the ‘other’, i.e. the one being represented internalised the representation and viewed the self through the lenses of the ‘us’ or in this case the ‘other’. Literature from the colonial period Bengal is lush with examples of this.
In colonial Bengal, we can see the example of this kind of stereotyping in the caricatured image of the Babu. Keywords in English language utilised to depict the figure of the babu were words like ‘effeminate’, ‘cowardly’, ‘immoral’, often times ‘amoral’ figure, a far cry from the ‘masculine’, ‘righteous’ and ‘courageous’ figure of the white man. We can see the replication or the use of this stereotype in the native fiction albeit with a different purpose. Hans Harder in The Modern Babu and the Metropolis (1957) writes that
The literary traditions of premodern Bengal – adaptations of the great epics, Vaishnava lyrics, Mangal Kabyas, hagiographic literature (whether Hindu or Muslim), Tantrik literature, etc. – as a rule operated on a highly symbolic frame of reference: a mythological, superimposed system elevated from the status quo. In these contexts the new narrations mark a drastic change in the communicative directives of Bengali literature. Their subject matter is derived directly from a new sort of awareness in the contemporary society, and they communicate the perceptions of that society back onto it….So, we have for the first time, literary Bengali bhadralok or gentle society speaking about itself – there was no speaking about oneself in premodern literature – and that again in oblique mode of satirical dissent.
Whether written in dissent or not, we find a plethora of the stereotypical babu’s image in the Naksha or the satirical Bengali literature of the age. A few examples are — Babu Upakhyan, Naba Babu Bilash , Hutum Pyachar Naksha, Alaler Ghorer Dulal and more. These early Bengali prose took inspiration from the English prose and the prevalent European worldview to utilise this stereotype of the babu to critique the contemporary society. Whatever the motive was, what essentially had happened was that this image of the babu which was a part of the ‘self’ or defined, depicted or represented the self was essentially a reflection of the colonially constructed other, hence proving the extent of internalisation. It shows how the ‘other’ or the colonised had lost the right to self-definition and representation. And what made this entire phenomenon possible was the use of language as a tool of hegemonic control.
This act of representation through use of stereotypes is still rampant in contemporary Bengali literature and media. Literature and media in Bengal, by which I basically mean Bangladesh has long been subject to the debate between promito bhasha and colloquial language. Bengal with its vastly varying dialects and the predominance of what is commonly called ‘bookish Bengali’ in literature foments the argument of the dominance of one particular dialect and negligence of others in literature and mainstream media. In Bengal like many other societies finesse of language, proper diction has long been associated with class and status. Interestingly enough, this dominance of a particular dialect and the status associated with it has long been fortified through the depiction of the comical and stereotypical figure of the bangal in literature, theatre and media in West Bengal. The biggest chink in the armoury of this bangal was his language, his dialect which was used to separate him from the homogenous society and culture. Even in contemporary times we see the tradition continuing particularly via the popular soap operas of West Bengal viewed widely throughout both West Bengal and Bangladesh. In these soaps, we see the depiction of a bangal figure who often time hails from a lower social status, or is less polished or gentrified and often delivers comic relief.
In the broader world media and literature, we see this game of representation via language rampant as well. A typical example of this is the representation of the black community in Western, and by claims of popularity it is rather known as American literature and media. Historically language played a key role in attaching negative connotations with the African American community in America. Words like violence, poverty, crime has long been associated with this community in the popular imagination. These connotations have created the figure of a black stereotype. The operation was much covert than overt, but has been so far reaching that average South Asians whose homogenous societies lack any significant minority or presence of this community has internalised this image as well. A case in point is the irrational internal fear that many harbours in South Asia about this community. This act of representation and stereotyping has been extended to other migrant communities in America and Europe as well. For example, the stereotype of the Asian (not always South Asia and never the Middle East) migrant led to frequent use of words like ‘nerd’, ‘assiduous’, ‘hard working’, eventually creating the stereotypical image of a model minority or migrant community. In Europe and America, the South Asian, Arab, Latinos and other communities has been subject to this stereotyping. What happens through this act of stereotyping is that these communities essentially lose their voices, they are robbed of their right to self-definition; they are represented. Very little consent can be found in this generalisation. A passage from Orientalism by Said further explains this phenomenon,
Flaubert’s encounter with an Egyptian courtesan produced a widely influential model of the Oriental woman; she never spoke of herself, she never represented her emotions, presence, or history. He spoke for her and represented her. He was foreign, comparatively wealthy, male, and these were historical facts of domination that allowed him not only to possess Kuchuk Hanem physically, but to speak for her and tell his readers in what way she was ‘typically Oriental.’
Ever since the colonial period, this kind of stereotyping through the act of representation has had far reaching political repercussions. As Nugugi WA Thiong’O in Decolonizing the Mind writes,
The real aim of colonialism was to control the people’s wealth….But its most important area of domination was the mental universe of the colonized, the control, through culture, of how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the world. Economic and political control can never be complete or effective without mental control.
The main vehicle of this has always been language and this use of language to represent and construct stereotypes with ulterior political aims is still in continuum. A cursory glance at contemporary international politics makes this fact evident. An important case in point is the current American president Donald Trump. Through infamously calling Mexican and other Latin American migrants ‘bad hombres’ and some ‘good hombres’ his politics is in a continual endeavour to construct the stereotypes of dangerous migrants which in fact includes migrants from all Non-European nations. Through his speeches, he is continually fanning the deep seated and covert racial supremacy and fear of the ‘other’ in society, a fear mongering tactic crucial to his political existence. The contemporary global politics has seen the rise of the right wing forces in the recent decades. This use of language to construct stereotypes, negative images and manufacture fear, anxiety and hostility will not abate in the foreseeable future.

Anika Mahin is a play writer and performer.

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