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Taal | Language > Taaldebat | Language Debate > Essays & Referate | Essays & Papers > Language and the raging war on crime

Language and the raging war on crime

Jameson Maluleke - 2007-08-01
This paper was presented at the AUETSA / SAACLALS / SAVAL Conference July 08 - 11, 2007, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Howard College Campus.


While the teaching of language continues to enjoy the highest priority amongst language scholars, it is annoying to note that the war on crime has been grossly neglected by language practitioners. How linguists and language practitioners expect to study and teach language in a peaceful environment while the whole society is bleeding from violent crime is beyond all human comprehension.

Before some of us start complaining that we cannot fight maniacs wielding AK47 assault rifles with our bare hands, let me point out that language can confront and disarm these greedy fiends. We must never forget that a language is as lethal as the weapons carried by these thugs.

No doubt criminologists have their own definitions of crime, but for us linguists crime is a statement of aggression, a violent declaration by criminals. In its essence crime is an anti-social behaviour, which criminals use to communicate terror and freezing fear in the heart of the people - it is similar, though in a negative sense, to what Labov (1985:183) calls "a form of social behaviour" in that it is a kind of expression which begs to be decoded. Halliday (1973), who emphasised the social functions of a language, and linguistic philosophers such as Austin (1962), Searle (1969) and Grice (1975), who were influential in the study of language, would have seen crime as an anti-social activity (quoted by McCarthy 1991). Berger and Berger (1981:81) describe language as a fundamental institution of society, or an organisation if you like:

It is fundamental because all other institutions, whatever their various purposes and characteristics, build upon the underlying regulatory pattern of language. The state, the economy and the educational system, whatever else they may be, depend upon linguistic edifice for classification, concepts and imperatives for individuals' actions - that is, they depend on a world of meanings that was constructed by means of language and can only be kept going by language.

Since language is regarded by various scholars as social action or an organisation, it follows that linguists have unlimited linguistic resources at their disposal to fight crime. Amongst hundreds of these resources, teaching, which involves both the informal and formal nurturing (ie home and school education) of our young ones, is by far the most effective means. Teaching as a method emphasises what I like to call the "prevention is better that cure" approach. The whole South African society agrees that protest marches are fast becoming one of the most popular weapons against crime, and to remind the criminal justice system to improve ways to deal with rampant crime. Protest marches are a language in their own right (see Maluleke 2003 and Maluleke 2006).

I present this paper partly out of my concern as a patriotic South African, a law-abiding parent, and an aspiring linguist, but chiefly, I present it as a contribution - protest/fight – against crime in our motherland. Rummaging through relevant literature on crime and language, I realised that nothing much has been done by linguists in this field despite our vulnerability to crime. Perhaps this should not be surprising, because mainstream linguists tend to regard the fight against crime as the concern of social, behavioural and cultural scientists.

All the same, scholars like Sambo (1997), Ramaite (1997) and Hubbard (1994) have pioneered research through their groundbreaking papers on language and law. Let us also not deny that extensive research had been undertaken and successfully completed by linguists such as Solan and Tiersma (2005), Olsson (2004), Coulthard (1994) and a host of others. However, all these scholars focus heavily on legal and judicial approaches in their fight against crime rather than opt for the direct-confrontational, hands-on approach which this paper is calling for. With the exception of Sambo, Ramaite and Hubbard, these scholars are overseas language practitioners and linguists, a point which drives home to us that this study is in its infancy in this country.

My paper seeks, therefore, to explore ways in which linguists can contribute to the eradication of crime in our society. I am convinced that whatever safety and security measures a society can devise will hardly succeed without the use of language as part of the solution.

A pandemic, a plague

Like the Aids pandemic, crime infests almost every sector of public life, so that citizens no longer feel safe even in their own homesteads. The rich are pouring out of the country, taking with them skills and expertise to other countries, while the poor have put their plight in the hands of the Almighty. Quite a number of schools and colleges around the country are fast becoming synonymous with the underworld, institutions where our school children whet their skills to become rapists, heartless murderers, armed robbers, drug addicts and drug traffickers.

Socrates (circa 470-399 BC) is probably the first person to have recognised and recorded the unruly behaviour of our young ones in those early years of civilisation when he complained about young people in Athens:

The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.

A point well expressed. School children aren't interested in the pursuit of knowledge like in the days gone, and they also do not want to be lovers of wisdom. Theirs is to reach the pinnacle of crime.

A month never comes and goes without a student being raped, knifed, robbed or even killed at some of these schools or colleges. Offices which house teachers or lecturers have been turned into cages, as tutors are also victims of school violence. Schools and colleges are not the only places where this phenomenon manifests itself. Open veld, abandoned business precincts, and isolated places of worship compete with gambling dens and taverns as homes for criminals.

Let us face the tragic fact: some of the school children engaged in criminal activities today might end up as life presidents and absolute monarchs who excel in running various forms of dictatorship. Fake believers who masquerade as saints and angels in liberation armies which evoke the image of God as their leader, and devotees of the holy wars are in fact marauding beasts who graduated from the school of violence to wickedness called terrorism fuelled by misinformed ideologies and fanaticism. Monsters and bandits who today call themselves freedom fighters are actually busy training to conduct ethnic cleansing (and are terrorising their own African people) once they gain power. On retirement they will flock to the African Union (AU) to demand old age homes in that they would see themselves as Africa's elder statesmen.

It is this criminality by military despots which made people like Brian Carnell (overpopulation.com August 28, 2002) dub the AU "the same old … club": "Despite the public relations nonsense that this would bring more accountability, etc etc to Africa, the African Union is the same old dictators' club." We, African society, parents, and language teachers in particular, will have ourselves to blame for unwittingly nurturing dictators, tyrants and oppressors. If we don't want to see our children becoming dictators, then we should start to be serious in growing our children in accordance with our morals, norms and conventions.

A minefield of statistics

Crime robs our society of our old folks, our parents, our children and even our babies. Statistics are a bone of contention between crime experts and the government. It is a minefield which one must tread with utmost caution. While the government disputes the claim that crime is out of control or is becoming worse year after year, the Institute for Security Studies's senior researcher Johan Burger says that although crime has been dropping by 6 percent each year since 2003, it is still very high. "For example, even though our murder figures have come down by 40% since 1994, our murder rate is almost 8 times the international norm (of approximately 5.5 per 100 000 of the population)." (Also see Sunday Times, May 13, 2007.)

The extent of crime in this country has explicitly been captured by Anthony Altbeker (Star, February 18, 2007), who points out that despite official denial of the growth of violent crimes in South Africa, violent crime is more prevalent than it was 10 years ago. Altbeker gives robbery as an instance in order to drive home the horrors and brutality meted out on our society by crime:

Robbery, a crime that brings the threat of sudden, anonymous death and injury into every household, terrifies the pants off people. Its rise has created a sense that an entire way of life is being destroyed.

Sharing the same sentiments, Vanessa Barolsky (The Star, March 18, 2007) says:

In many instances of violence now taking place, the rationalities and goals of its participants appear completely obscure, their violence is profoundly senseless. What objective does a hijacker who has stolen a cellphone achieve when he shoots the person whose cellphone he has already taken?

Root causes of crime

The root causes of crime in our society are as elusive as a fish in a flooding river. We often hear scholars claiming that school violence is a global phenomenon and that the average behaviour of school children in South Africa is the same as those in Iowa in the US. But just what are the root causes of crime?

People are convinced that the media are crime-friendly, and that many criminals were inspired by the media to become law offenders. Media scholars like Jewkes (2004:32) maintain that

… although academic researchers in the UK have strongly resisted attempts to assert the existence of a causal link between media and crime, rendering the debate all but redundant in media scholarship, notions of potentially harmful media capable of eliciting negative or anti-social consequence remain at the heart of popular or mainstream discourses, including those that have been incorporated into policy.

Yet the media still prefer to take this allegation cum grano salis.

Research by social scientists indicates that several social maladies, such as all-night drinking parties, poverty, unemployment and family disintegration, feature as the main causes. One of South Africa's top clinical psychologists, Dr Elisa Mecco (interview, June 4, 2007), holds that exposure to violence in childhood, abusive family backgrounds, a legacy of violence inherited from the old regime and an extreme polarisation in the distribution of wealth are the root causes of violence in this country. According to Mecco, children who experience physical, sexual or emotional abuse are more prone to the feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, frustration, anger and self-devaluation which lead to aggression and irrational outbursts of uncontrollable and destructive rage.

This may be the kind of background we will find behind extreme violent behaviours like the one that culminated in the senseless shooting at Virginia Tech University in the US in April this year.

Children, Mecco continues, learn through imitation of the behaviour of adults.

If a child has not been respected as a human being while growing up and has not seen adults in the immediate family respect one another, he/she will not learn to respect others. If parents, who are the authority figures in the life of the child, do not behave in a way that sets a good example, the child will grow up challenging and contemptuous towards all the authority figures in the future.

As we can see, there are numerous factors which lead to the birth of crime, rendering the root cause of crime a complex discourse which requires hundreds of pages to clarify. Unfortunately time and space do not allow me to go on discussing why there is crime in the country.

Secularisation of the state

The old African way of life (rich in customs and traditions) has been destroyed and replaced with nothing at all. Our democratic government has declared itself a secular state and later introduced multi-religions or faiths. By so doing it unwittingly destroyed the Judeo/Christian tradition which made it easy for the society to set moral standards adopted and followed by almost each household. Today the government is faced with the task of filling the moral vacuum in that multi-religions, with their diverse values and manner of worship, can only make people deurmekaar. The Moral Regeneration Campaign, a politician's brainchild supposed to shape the moral behaviour of the nation, is struggling to stand on its own feet. Its moral crusade has turned out to be a hopeless fiasco for a simple reason – politicians have no moral clout to establish and run a project that deals with the nurturing of a person's behaviour.

Although Sellick (September 12, 2006) writes with fellow Australians in mind, his argument is relevant to the South African situation. He points out that secular attempts to provide character formation for citizens run the risk of simply being ignored:

I would have thought that the bloody history of the 20th Century would have taught us that it is not the function of governments to engineer the values and character of their citizens.

A government which centralises the responsibility of developing citizens' good behaviour runs the risk of alienating itself from the common people, as Sellick points in the above extract. It would indeed be impossible for us to go back to live like in the good ol' days, but something modern needs to be done to compensate for the loss of our traditional social system which played a crucial role in rehabilitating criminals in our society.

Language as a tool to fight crime

In the light of the scenario painted above, a question arises: How can we exploit language to shield us from criminals and their anti-social activities?

Contrary to their anti-social behaviour, criminals do not live in isolation, but within the society which they are so fond of terrorising. From the time they hatch their plans to commit crime up to the final stages when they carry out their ghastly plans, criminals employ language to facilitate, manage and articulate the whole project - thus reinforcing Fromkin and Rodman's (1983) postulation that "every human activity is accompanied by language" and that "to understand our humanity one must understand the language that makes us human". It does not matter whether criminals whisper in the dark, or use coded language, signs or gestures, the fact is that language remains one of their main tools.

If criminals succeed in committing acts of crimes by exploiting language as one of their best and trusted instruments, what prevents language experts to use language to counteract criminals' activities? Does our expertise go only as far as being armchair crusaders? I am not aware of instant solutions to these questions, but I am deeply convinced that protest language is one of the best cures, the best medicine for this social malady. We need to take off our academic garb; we need to come out of our little fortresses and our castles, our bungalows and our shacks to carry the banner of sociolinguistic revolution against crime.

Mao Zedong says:

If you want to know a certain thing or a certain class of things directly, you must personally participate in the practical struggle to change reality, to change that thing or class of things, for only thus can you come into contact with them as phenomena, only through personal participation can you uncover the essence of that thing or class of things and comprehend them (Chairman Mao-Tung, quoted by Coupland and Jaworski 1997:20).

For us to fight crime, we need to understand it - "uncover its essence", and take part in protest marches and make it impossible for criminals to exist. We need to make both authorities in the criminal justice system and criminals aware that we are fed-up (or shall I say "gatvol"?) with daily acts of crime where many fellow South Africans lose their lives for a mere cellphone or a wristwatch.

It may be easy for us to say that crime prevention is the responsibility of the SAPS - that policemen and policewomen are professionally trained and are paid millions of rands to deal with crime. True enough, but crime has reached such a crisis in our country that we all need to work side by side with whoever is fighting against crime to create a crime-free South Africa.

Teach, nurture, grow, guide

Apart from the use of protest language to ward off crime, we as parents and language teachers should concentrate on teaching, nurturing and grooming our children so that they grow up in a morally acceptable way. Children spend most of their time at home and school, so it should be easy to grow them morally. We need to change the approach of our language teaching in order to carve angels out of our young ones by employing a cultural approach in our teaching of language. For instance, it is not enough to teach a child language fluency without encouraging him/her to be a responsible, refined citizen of tomorrow. A repetition of "Thanks a billion" in English becomes hollow for a second language student if it is not accompanied by its cultural meaning. For some time now I have been advocating for language studies to be combined with cultural studies in that language is essentially a medium of culture. At the moment language study is more concerned with how best a language student can acquire language. Thus fluency becomes the ultimate aim of language teaching, a fact that makes the study a bit theoretical.

Chick (1992) has this to say about language teaching:

There are no doubt many reasons for the perception that linguistics has little to contribute to the forging of democratic, non-racial South Africa. One surely is that "mainstream linguistics" focuses on abstract competence and largely ignores contextual factors. More important, I suspect, is that, even in the case of sociolinguistics, which by definition is directly concerned with social context, there has been little research which concerns itself directly with language in the establishment, maintenance, and change of social relations of power.

Needless to say, there is an urgent need for language teaching to review its methods. Time and again, it has been argued in the past that languages like English are global languages and as such can't identify themselves with any culture. This argument is fallacious - whoever speaks English has a social value system of which culture forms a part.

Children are known to be hero-worshipers who like to emulate ideal teachers and their parents. Therefore a parent or teacher with a rotten reputation should stay away from growing children as he/she is likely going to corrupt the young mind. A doctor of linguistics who has little regard for his society's traditions and customs should not claim to be a cultured person. Manners maketh a man, as the old saying clearly puts it.

Again, a dose of corporal punishment for the wayward student would do wonders. Without any intention to offend our Human Rights Commission, let me reveal that the use of a stick as punishment is of vital importance in the life of a child. We can't set rules and regulations without a deterrent to instil fear to commit crime. Proverbs 13:24 reminds us thus: He that spareth his rod hateth his son.

It is so tempting to rope in the assistance of the media to rear, teach, proclaim, and propagate messages about the fight against crime. However, we need to be cautious about the media in that it is designed not to change people's behaviour, but to worship the god of profit. Jewkes (2004:200) says, "It has long been established that the media is not a window on the world, but is a prism subtly bending and distorting our picture of reality." Therefore, we as teachers and parents must learn to teach, nurture and grow our children on our own.

As for the adult offender, there is nothing much parents and teachers can do for him/her in that the traditional remedy for adult offenders is a prison. However, prisons and reformatories are not always effective. Hundreds of offenders often return from overcrowded prisons as hardened criminals rather than rehabilitated ones. A new approach is urgently needed to deal with the adult offender.

Conclusion - Rome is burning

We may succeed in exporting language such as English to countries where it was not previously spoken. However, our language education will remain meaningless if we fail to teach the kind of language that will ensure peace and security in our neighbourhoods - language that will refine our young ones to the extent that they will abhor unlawful conduct. School violence is a pertinent manifestation that something is wrong with our language education and the way in which we grow our children at home.

Let us not stand back, fold our arms and fidget while Rome is embraced by licking flames. The time for action is now.

Thank you.