We are going through a tumultuous period defined by the twin perils of sky-rocketing living costs and nagging power outages. At a time when cross-sections of people were expecting that the economy had turned the corner, riding out the gloomy economic prognosis, things turned upside down again. Despite such depressing times, comments by a few of our ministers have hit the headlines and caused a furore on social media and in public spheres.
Just a few days ago, LGRD Minister Tazul Islam said, "No one is starving. By the blessings of Almighty Allah, everyone is getting food. Everybody is wearing clothes." Planning Minister MA Mannan opined, "I won't deny that prices of essentials have increased. But no one has died yet due to the price hike." The most surprising one came from our Foreign Minister Abdul Momen, who said, "Compared to people in other countries, we are living happily. It can be said we are living in heaven."
These comments have turned out to be a cause célèbre for their implications, both at the surface and the connotative level. Now, if we actually try to look beyond what is said in the ministers' comments from a discourse point of view, what do their words imply?
For those unversed in the idea of discourse analysis, it is, as defined by Joan Cutting in his book 'Discourse and Pragmatics: A resource book for students', the systematic approach to studying language's relation to the contextual background features. If we want to conduct a discourse analysis of a statement (then converted into written words, which is a prerequisite for discourse analysis), we need to study three things - the context, text and function.
According to Stilwell Peccei and Yule, two renowned linguists, discourse analysis studies the meaning of the words in context, analysing the parts of meaning after taking socio-psychological factors influencing the communication as well as the time and place into consideration. Now, what is the context of the comments made by the ministers and are they aware of the socio-psychological factors that are actually railroading them into making such comments?
There is no denying that our economy is not faring well along with all other economies of the world. The whole world is struggling for several reasons, including the Russia-Ukraine war, dollar crunch et al. The blowbacks are now also very much evident in Bangladesh. The prices of diesel and octane have been raised. As a natural consequence, the prices of all other essentials, including daily commodities, vegetables and other food items, have skyrocketed within a mere difference of a few days. So, the living cost has mounted up manifold all of a sudden.
As a result, people, especially those belonging to the lower and middle rungs of the social ladder, are struggling very hard to put food on the table. The situation is getting unbearable day by day as people cannot now even buy a dozen eggs for Tk. 100.
This is the context. But, are the ministers aware of the socio-psychological factors that may influence the thought process of the people for whom the words were meant? People, in general, are going through a terrible time – both socially and economically. Because of the rising pressure on their wallets, people are being forced to tighten their belts and pinch pennies. This is affecting their psychological state, making their lives all the more miserable. Now the question is – are our ministers not well aware of this situation? If so, then why did they make such comments? If we consider the aforementioned points, then it can be said without a shadow of a doubt that it was a bad discourse.
Second, discourse analysis looks at the use of language (text), concentrating on how stretches of language become meaningful for the intended users. This can be explained more clearly with the idea of coherence and cohesion. However, this part is more related to syntactic and semantic attributes of language, so we will not delve deeper into that discussion.
Finally, discourse analysis is concerned with function – the speaker's short-term and long-term goals in uttering the words. To describe this, the utterances are divided into speech acts, which explain why the words have been uttered. J.L Austin, a British philosopher of language and leading proponent of ordinary language philosophy, introduced the theory of speech acts to make this idea of language function more concrete and clearer. Speech acts are defined as the action performed by saying something. For example – it could be to apologise, promise, threaten or hurt.
According to speech acts theory, the act of saying something is called locutionary act, what the speaker is doing with the words (function of the words) is called illocutionary force and the last level of analysis is the effect of the words on the hearers, which is known as the perlocutionary effect.
When the ministers uttered those words, they performed a locutionary act. What is the illocutionary force here and the perlocutionary effect? Here comes the most intriguing part of this analysis. What were actually the short-term and long-term goals of the ministers while saying these?
The ministers might have intended to mean (short-term) that they are doing very well economically. As they are wallowing in all the luxuries one needs in life and enjoying all the trappings of power, it's very natural that they will not be able to identify themselves with the sufferings of the common people. And maybe their long-term goal was to remind us of the fact that they don't need to talk sensibly as people have literally lost the power to hold them accountable for their actions.
Now, if we take a look at the perlocutionary effect, it is very clear from such discourse of the politicians that they don't understand the pulse of the people anymore. Their words have had a very deafening and shocking effect on people from all walks of life. People are hurt and shattered to pieces after hearing such apologist-like remarks from our politicians at a time when everyone is actually struggling to survive.
To summarise the effect of the ministers' words on mass people, we can simply say 'we are not amused', the words which were actually uttered by Queen Victoria as a warning to her courtiers to stop trying to lift her out of depression and remind them all that she has to be respected as a queen. Just like her, as a common man, I would also like to repeat the words for our ministers that we are not amused. If you people cannot do something about the present chaotic situation, then at least don't hurt our feelings and underestimate the vortex of afflictions we are sucked into.
Md Morshedul Alam Mohabat is a philomath who likes to delve deeper into the human psyche with a view to exploring the factors that influence it.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.