“Language is a partner of empire…but that same language can be used against empire…”- Professor Jane Lewis from University of California- Irvine.
Power dynamics between powerful groups can be seen throughout history, but the tools they used to maintain their power includes more than physical weapons. Language is a powerful tool humans have invented to empower themselves and to communicate with each other. However, language not only operates as a tool for communication but also as a means to support hierarchy within a group of people. In history, we often hear the great exploits of an empire and the quantitative symbols that represent casualties, but history told in this way insufficiently accounts for the experience of the people who were directly influenced by the actions of empire.
In regards to this dilemma, my instructor firmly states that “history is often told/written by the victors”. These victors justify their actions through their words and power. The aphorism “Might makes right.” also relates to what is explicitly shown in history books and what is left out. If you are literate, you have knowledge; if you have the knowledge, you have freedom; if you have freedom, you have power. As long as you have power, anything you do is justified. For example, my friend was a president of a club in high school and no matter what she said or did, everybody was on her side. Because she had the authority, no one ever really questioned her. If someone did, in this day and age, the only way to go against her would be through words. Instead of fighting with fists, it’s better to fight with words or through non-violent means.
In modern society, groups of minorities and those in the lower class can now lessen the distance between them and those of the upper class through literacy and writing. Modern songs, modes of communication, contain and extend the power of language. With their lyrics, artists can portray where they stand on social, political, or economic issues.
Stephen is an artist based in LA who makes meaningful music about events or issues that affect him. “Crossfire” is a song from his album Sincerely that represents Stephen’s thoughts on the situation in Syria with the refugees. According to the lyrics, the singer is sympathizing with and pitying those who are caught in the middle of a cruel conflict or the “crossfire”. The singer doesn’t understand- no the singer knows it’s unfair that people who have done no wrong are becoming victims of a pointless war of attrition made by society’s views or “anxieties”.
Verse 1: “He’d trade his guns for love/ But he’s caught in a crossfire/ And he keeps waking up/ But it’s not to the sound of birds/ The tyranny, the violent streets/ Deprived of all that we’re blessed with/ And we can’t get enough, no.”
In verse 1, the singer identifies as a bystander who is physically unaffected by the crossfire; a bystander who is a part of the group that is depriving the people of peace.
Chorus: “Heaven, if you sent us down/ So we can build a playground/ For the sinners to play as saints/ You’d be so proud of what we made/ I hope you got some beds around/ ‘Cause you’re the only refuge now/ For every mother, every child, every brother/ Who’s caught in the crossfi-, who’s caught in the crossfire”
In the chorus, the singer further explains that the current situation in the place he lives in is the opposite of heaven. It’s a place that is full of hypocrisy and lies with “sinners playing as saints”. A place where everybody living in this place have nowhere else to go but in an imaginary fantasy- “heaven”.
Verse 2: “I’d trade my luck to know/ Why he’s caught in the crossfire/ And I’m here waking up/ To the sun and the sound of birds/ Society’s anxiety/ Deprived of all that we’re blessed with/ We just can’t get enough, no.”
Again, the singer is confused about why the people are suffering, but there’s a subtle hint that it’s to maintain the blessed peace he’s experiencing when he repeats the line “Deprived of all that we’re blessed with/We just can’t get enough, no.” The fellow who’s caught in the crossfire for no apparent reason has no chance of experiencing a peaceful and lazy life. “We” refers to the society of people of a country or empire the singer resides in who are acting as bystanders or as the enemy as the crossfire is happening. What can’t “we” get enough? We can’t get enough of living in luxury. We can’t get enough of living in peace. We can’t get enough of remaining in power. We can’t get enough of taking advantage of others and benefitting from it.
Bridge: “Can I trust what I’m given?/ When faith still needs a gun/ Whose ammunition justifies the wrong?/ And I can’t see from the backseat/ So I’m asking from above/ Can I trust what I’m given, even when it cuts?”
Finally, we have the singer arrive at a conclusion that the news and “society’s anxiety” might be based on false rumors or exaggerations. Which side is right or wrong? This ambiguity troubles the singer and yet he is helpless to do anything since he is merely a one person “in the backseat”. Thus, he looks to a higher being for help; to answer his question. Can we trust hypocritical people who claim to do it (war) for peace but use their weapons to kill innocents? The hypocrites are morally or ethically wrong, but they’re arguments aren’t false or invalid (Tu Quoque fallacy). Maybe we can only gain peace at the expense of others. According to V. D. Savarkar, he views history as a history of violence in which nothing is accomplished without bloodshed. Of course on the opposite side of the spectrum, we have Gandhi who believes that we wouldn’t be alive now if there was only constant violence.
With such confusion and difference in philosophies, Stephen created a powerful music video for “Crossfire”.
In the music video’s description, Stephen states,
“There is a cultural misconception that tragedies require the assignment of blame. Who’s fault was it? Who’s the bad guy? We only see the aftermath and yet we make up our minds without ever seeing the events leading up.
I don’t believe its ever this simple, so we created a video that would reveal the complexity of one of today’s most controversial and frequent tragedies.”
In the music video, many people have blindfolds on and yet they act out their daily life without awareness of this abnormality. This blindfold seems to represent society’s blindness to the other side of the situation. It shows how messed up modern society truly is since few of us know what’s really going on yet choose to blindly believe in whatever the government tells us. Thus, the blindfolded policeman was led on by society’s lies to the innocent but aware black man and was prompted to shoot him because society (the evil-looking man) told him to. After shooting him, the policeman experiences a brief moment of awareness of society’s flaws before he is once again forcibly blindfolded again. Furthermore, throughout the video, it’s prominent that the children weren’t blindfolded which shows that society has not yet imposed its malicious views on them yet, but we see society (the evil-looking man) holding up a blindfold heading towards the crying little girl leaving the audience with a sense of helplessness. Fire also plays a vital role in this music video. The fire was the light that allowed the blind-folded to see the truth in regards to the situation surrounding the poor circumstances some minorities were forced to accept. The black man held this fire torch and freed some people from their ignorance, but when he was shot by the policeman, the torch fell to the ground only to be picked up again by someone else, a child or the new generation.
With only a song and a music video, Stephen has reached out to a numerous amount of people. He calls for people to take action, to do something about the refugee situation, to state the fact that he’s against racism. As someone in the backseat, a mere citizen of a large empire, he can’t do much, but he can spread awareness through his music and his audience. His audience, in turn, spreads his opinion on the situation in Syria and his discontentment with society’s actions. Like Gandhi, Savarkar, and Ranchod who had to write in a moment of urgency to create a greater impact on the situation around them, Stephen uses the wide range of music to influence those around him. This action of spreading knowledge, wisdom, and awareness through language only furthers my point that without language, one is left stranded without any chance to become involved. Even if there are ways to express oneself via body language, facial expressions, and more these modes can’t accurately convey or explain the concept without the vast vocabulary and descriptions within language.
Language in the hands of those who have been directly affected by power can be a tool for moral strengthening, ethical improvement, or healing, but it can also be a tool used to resist those in power. Those who have become part of the ‘ruins’ of empire can rise from the ruins through language, for there is more beyond the ruins. Language can be considered a tool of equity for everyone, but what if one day those with power banned those of lesser power from speaking, writing, and using language? Can an empire even run without language? Rousseau said language was created for civilization. If we took language away, will it break civilizations and allow for the Rousseau’s desired regression? If language is a form of nonviolence that can combat the use of violence, is there any other tool that could possibly replace it?