An enormous brouhaha has erupted over the use of the word “cleansing”. The problems have evolved not from the use of the word in isolation, but with its usage in conjunction with certain adjectives. The most notable recent usage in the Caribbean region was that reportedto have been uttered by Sir Sridath Ramphal, who used “intimations” of “ethnic cleansing” in commenting on actions associated with the Barbadian government’s change of amnesty policy for Caricom non-nationals. Many people rans straight past “intimations” to the other two words and got understandably angry. They did not see any relationship with the infamous cases of ethnic cleansing, such as in Bosnia or Rwanda. Some even made the charge worse by misquoting, and using “practising” or more active verbs instead of “intimations”. Sir S. was in hot water.
Last week, Barbadian political analyst and pollster, Peter Wickham, added his dollar’s worth (see the Nation, People and Things: Ethnic cleansing nonsense). He said clearly, “I believe Sir Shridath’s comments were entirely out of order and no deliberation on the meaning of “intimation” can rationalise it.” But, he proceeds, “it is also important that these comments be placed in perspective. I appreciate the location of those remarks and am entirely sympathetic to his intentions, although not his methods. He then criticizes the Nation newspaper for some irresponsible journalism and goes back to remind of the unintended results of the changed policy. He closed with, “To him I say, I feel your pain, but let’s not do an injustice to our understanding of the atrocities that have taken place in Bosnia, Serbia and Rwanda by comparing these to garden variety xenophobia in Barbados.”
The Merrian-Webster dictionary has the origin of ‘ethnic cleansing’ in 1991, and defines it as ‘ the expulsion, imprisonment, or killing of an ethnic minority by a dominant majority in order to achieve ethnic homogeneity’. At its most extreme, we have genocide–‘the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group’ according to Webster’s (origin, 1944). But such killing has been rife through the ages and The Bible tells us so.
But, we know that the general activity predates by many centuries the use of this new term. The new term was prompted by war activities in the former Yugoslavia. In the 20th century alone we know of hideous instances of the activity but with different terms. We have Nazi Germany: where areas could be declared ‘judenrein’ (literally “Jew Clean”, “cleansed of Jews” in the pursuit of Aryan racial purity. We have the former Soviet Union: the Russian term ochistka granits (очистка границ) (“cleansing of borders”) was used in documents of the early 1930s in reference to the resettlement of Poles. We have many other examples around the globe through time–India, Israel, Indonesia–just staying with countries starting with the letter i. I personally lived with the effects of people expelled from Cyprus and Uganda. I wont go back through the centuries, but one only has to think about how some great nations were formed by the mass exodus of certain peoples to see and understand that we are seeing nothing new.
The ‘cleansing’ has its degrees and we can argue long and hard about where on the spectrum Sir Sridath was trying to position what he was observing. He does need to set the record straight. We do not need to go to the most vicious extremes.
But, perhaps mistaking all things to do with cleanliness to be near to godliness, public officials have been wading around without boots that do not leak.
In Trinidad, Caroni East MP, Dr Tim Gopeesingh, used “ethnic cleansing” in Parliament on July 17, but has since tried to explain that he meant ‘silent’ cleansing, in the sense of political discrimination, see Trinidad Guardian report). We now have to move from e-cleansing to ‘political’ cleansing. But, tongues will not be silenced.
In Barbados this week, the opposition politicians have joined in usage of the term ‘cleansing’. Today’s Nation reports that “Dr William Dugiud (sic) claims that UDC workers about to be axed are “highly qualified” and are “capable of doing jobs which some of them have done for nine or ten years”. And he has decried the government’s action as “just political cleansing.” Dr. Duguid (note correction) may find within a few hours that he has done himself no good at all. If the quote is correct, we are heading for a problem just because of syntax. ‘Just’, as an adverb, can mean very recently, only, simply, barely, etc. But ‘just’ as an adjective can mean fair (ie. good, merited, legally correct, etc.) Which ‘just’ did he mean? However you look at it, the good Dr. could be commending the government or condemning the government. I guess he will clarify.
I think smart people should try to say smart things and stay away from terms that are likely to aggravate rather than calm. Poor President Obama learnt that a few weeks ago, with his use of ‘stupid’. As a parent, I forbid the use of such language by my child and chastise my wife too if she uses it; it is not necessary and should be put away. “Loose lips sink ships”, they used to say. Not only ships, I would venture.