Friday, May 15, 2009

Defining ‘Keling’

I for one am glad the High Court has allowed the use of the word ‘keling’ in the Dewan Kamus. Frankly, I don’t see what the big fuss was all about in the first place. If those objecting to its inclusion in the dictionary are doing so because the word is insulting, derogatory, and degrading, it seems to me they’re missing the whole point.

I’m sure you’ll also agree that the English language dictionaries, for example, have many offense words, even racial slurs of all kind in them. Certainly most decent and civilised people are not going around using these words. But the words need to be recorded in dictionaries, as they have been. Now one might argue that including such words only contributes to preserving them – by passing them on from generation to generation – and thus helps perpetuate their use. If we discard such words from the dictionaries, then they will die out. And isn’t that better? After all, these are words we don’t want used anyway. Seems like a fair point, right? [Now you’re thinking, “wait a minute, looks like he’s got me walking into a trap here….” Not to worry.]

A dictionary helps us understand words and even the structure of a language. In addition, like a storage depot, it also preserves important as well as mundane aspect of a culture. Well, at least I think so [but what do I know]. At any rate, of course I’m not suggesting that just because a word is in the dictionary, that we must use it; far from it. I can think of many words that are at least just as offensive as ‘keling,’ and some probably even worse, which are presently in the dictionary. Of course I’m not just arguing that just because other offensive words are in there therefore we should also have this one.

Let me go back to the storage depot metaphor above. Preserving a reference to the language is a way to map how a language, culture and society has changed (or not changed). It is an important moral compass and helps us understand ourselves and for future generations to understand the past as well. So preserving such derogatory words in our dictionaries help us remind future generations of the kinds of injustices, discrimination, and racism in our society. It is a way to enable change for the better – not to perpetuate the past. Of course, for the former to happen, we must have, among other things, good stewards and conscientious leaders who can set examples and help us take the high road toward making changes for the better, instead of just perpetuating the past. However, if we forget that past, we lose sight of that which needs improving and we also lose sight of how far we’ve also come.

So having a word in a dictionary – especially a derogatory and insulting one – is by no means a licence for anyone to use it, especially in a way to reinforce racism or discrimination. But what I find implicit in the reasoning of those who object to the inclusion of the word ‘keling’ in the Dewan Kamus is the fear that somehow, allowing the word to be defined is also giving the green light for its use. That’s a mistaken assumption and misses the point. 

G. Krishnan