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The pen that beats the sword

Thesis shows the power of official and journalistic discourse for criminalizing social movements

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the disturbed prince, on being asked by the personage Polonius what called so much interest in the book he was devouring, replies with disdain: “Words, words, words.” This could work well in Denmark, but, in Brazil, when the subject is possession of the land, much more lies in words than our vain philosophy imagines. This is the theme of a thesis for a doctorate The Discourse of Materialized Conflict in the MST: The Open Wound of the Nation, by Lucília Maria de Sousa Romão, defended at the Psychology and Education Department, of the School of Philosophy, Sciences and Literature of the University of São Paulo, in Ribeirão Preto (FFLCRP/USP), with the supervision of Professor Leda Verdiani Tfouni, also from USP. There were almost four years of research into texts and fieldwork with interviews, carried out in Matão (SP), at the Dom Hélder Câmara settlement, where the Movement of the Landless (MST) had gathered together over a thousand families.

In analyzing the way the press and the authorities used discourse to portray the landless, Lucília discovered in today’s talk uncomfortable similarities with the ways that, in the past, the same organizations and rulers would refers to the hideaways of runaway slaves, to Canudos, to Contestado, to the uprising of Swiss peasants in Ibicaba, and to Francisco Julião’s Peasant Leagues. “In all the cases, the workings of discourse would try to demonize and criminalize their political practices and the denomination they were given, which indicates the formation of a discourse capable of pegging on a movement a sense that was always in tune,” Lucília observes. “Namely, they rub out the social reasons that make excluded people mobilize themselves, sequestering their political struggle and, in its place, narrating the disturbance and the threat to democratic peace,” the researcher adds.

According to the professor, “the official discourse shifts the question of the struggle for land from the civil sphere to the criminal area.” “This has been a recurrent and marked tonic in recent years: disparaging, denigrating and destroying the image of the other, accusing them of forming a gang, a band, of committing guileful crimes, like kidnapping, and of imploding the country’s juridically egalitarian and democratic order,” Lucília explains.

“By doing this, the subject moves to an area of the so-called interdiscourse – the coming and going of discursive memory – in which the rigor of the law has to be used to contain the savages, the rebels, the subversive and despoilers of social order,” the researcher reckons. Oddly enough, the same terms were used by the official and journalistic discourse of several centuries ago to refer to the “savage and insolent Negroes” of the slave hideaways and, later on, to the Swiss settlers of Ibicaba Farm as “lazy rebels.”

“Today, as then, one does not want to talk about the reasons that led these various historical social movements to act in the way they did. No one wants to know, for example, why a group from the MST occupies a farm, the socioeconomic conditions that led them to this undertaking. What comes through is not the social background, but only the ‘illegal’ result, ‘rowdiness’, and ‘vandalism’. It is a perverse mechanism” in the researcher’s analysis.

The various social movements mentioned by Lucília have already been dissected in their most diverse aspects, but few have concerned themselves with understanding that they entered into conflict with also by means of the shock between the differentiated discourses, which the researcher divides into “dominant discursive formation” (with the legal apparatus and connected with the major national press) and the “dominated discursive formation”, the one that is the object of prejudice and defamation by the former.

“It is fundamental to analyze how the talk is constructed, particularly in a society like the Brazilian one. Discourse has a notable power for weaving the imaginary and making sense move in a single direction, as if it were the true representation of a socio-historical fact,” the professor explains. “Accordingly, influenced by this speech with the power of authority, many take up this perspective of what the excluded are and what motivates them to act in a given manner,” she construes.

“The opacity of the language and the permanent play of mirrors of the said and the silenced crystallize the notion that all saying has a shadow, a second skin stuck to the body. It is up to the analyst to take this into account. That is what I do when I look at the recording of news dressed up in a journalistic tone to have an effect of neutrality,” she says. Because, according to Lucília, if the official discourse is strong, it gets a powerful megaphone in the major press. “In the attempt to explain the world, journalistic discourse fills out its strategies to make the information appear secure, trustworthy and faithful to reality, as if it were the only way of speaking,” she reckons. Lucília believes that this is a hackneyed practice in the Brazilian press, when the subject is social movements claiming possession of the land. “Those who covered the events at Canudos were just big shots linked to the military power and the newspapers connected with the State,” she recalls.

View of the rebelled
In actual fact, it was only last year that the vision of the conflict at Canudos from the point of view of the “rebelled” was published. The Breviary of Antonio Conselheiro, issued by the Federal University of Bahia, dates back to 1895 and was found in the ruins of the village by a soldier. With over 700 pages, it brings clarification on the real motivation of Conselheiro’s men, and a comparison of the text with the ideas propagated on the movement in Os Sertões [Rebellion in the Backlands], by Euclides da Cunha, shows the official mistakes in representing the “insurrected”.

“The press is only an illusion of objectivity. Hence the importance of the MST in recapturing the discourse of the struggle for land. After all, unlike the earlier movements, the current one is more organized and decentralized, not limited to a single place, but permeating the whole country,” Lucília observes. “This is how it manages a discourse of greater visibility, which little by little wins over the sympathy of more enlightened people, who no longer see them how the dominant discourse portrays them,” she says. “Many people do an uncritical reproduction of the discourse they receive. My work wants precisely to show the danger of this.” It is good to suspect that the pen can be stronger than the sword.