Violence in our Language

Welcome to our Hillbrow…

Welcome to our Hillbrow, the land where crime, prostitution, and violence prevails, the land where laws do not bind its people. Throughout the novel, we observed multiple cases where violence takes place in Hillbrow, from a seven years old child getting hit by a car to hearing gunshots ringing in the streets. Curious about how violence takes form in the novel (and beyond), I did some research into how violence can be characterized. One interpretation by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek describes the multifaceted nature of violence in his book Violence: Six Sideways Reflections as the following: “At the forefront of our minds, the obvious signals of violence are acts of crime and terror, civil unrest, international conflict. But we should learn to step back, to disentangle ourselves from the fascinating lure of this directly visible ‘subjective’ violence, violence performed by a clearly identifiable agent. We need to perceive the contours of the background which generates such outbursts.” In essence, besides the visible forms of violence that are often reported and discussed, there also exist less visible forms of violence which often perpetuate and accentuate the “obvious signals of violence.”

In his book, Žižek argues that one of the most harmful forms of invisible violence is represented in everyday language. This idea is supported in Welcome to Our Hillbrow, in which non-nationals are reduced to the label Makwerekwere, a derogatory term “derived from kwere kwere, a sound that their unintelligible foreign languages were supposed to make, according to the locals” (p. 20). They say that language is a tool used to connect cultures and build bridges between people; however, it is more than a simple tool: it is a double-edged sword that could also shatter bridges and sever relationships. Vilifying non-nationals by referring to them as Makwerekwere reduces them to less than human beings. In doing so, they are subjected to greater risks of physical violence, one reason being that perpetrators of violence are less inclined to feel guilt or remorse towards their actions. Another reason is that they even feel justified in putting what they perceive as “sub-humans” in their rightful places. Such thoughts are manifested in the 2008 xenophobic attacks throughout South Africa. In essence, dehumanization through language is a sensitive topic that warrants our attention, especially given its power in destroying social order.

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  1. I know this can be a bit off topic, but this reminds me of different types of violence based on gender that we studied during my “Developmental psychology” class. So, basically boys are more prone to physical violence like fights, injuries etc, while girls are more prone to “social” violence. Basically, in the case of girls, they ruin person’s social life and create, for instance, some bad rumors/gossips about that person. And I remember professor talking about how more severe consequence are most likely that social kind of violence. Because it requires more intelligence, as well as causes more harm in a sense. So, yep, just adding to Jenn’s point how this social exclusion and deliberate marginalization is such a severe punishment. Because you basically cause a person’s social death, where no one wants to form any kind of relationship or much less have any kind of association with that person/people.

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