Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Story of O’wnership


I get annoyed with people who pay too much attention on being politically correct. I’m not talking about using discriminatory language. I’m talking about people who pick on every single word you say and then interpret it as politically insensitive.

He’s not black. He’s African.”  “She’s not old. She’s OLD-ER”. She’s not fat, she’s well-endowed.” “He’s not short. He’s vertically challenged.” (Not that vertically challenged is any better!)

Well, let’s call a spade spade, shall we?

Not too long ago, I looked through some materials on discriminatory language for an effective writing course I was conducting. I didn’t realize that so many terms are now considered insensitive.

For instance, we don’t use the term ‘disabled’ anymore. The correct term is ‘people with disabilities’.  An epileptic should be called ‘a person with epilepsy’. You shouldn’t call someone deaf and dumb but ‘a person with a hearing/speaking impairment’. Calling someone a victim of AIDS is incorrect. They are people living with HIV/AIDS.

Unless you’re a diplomat or someone who is working in political, humanitarian or human rights field, it’s difficult to keep up with evolving terms like the ones above.

Recently, I received an email from someone expressing her concern about a reintegration case we were following up on.

We had previously visited a girl who had been rehabilitated and trained at a shelter for rescued victims of sexual exploitation. (Actually, I’ve been told that victim is the wrong term to use, but seriously, how else would you call it? A victim is defined as one who have been harmed by or made to suffer from an act, circumstance, agency, or condition and I believe it qualifies the description.)

This girl had started a small business with the help and support from the NGO I am volunteering for. During the visit, we noticed that her business was not doing well and we offered her some suggestions on how to attract customers, etc.

Anyway, according to the email, this girl has disappeared two days after our visit. Her shop has closed down and all the materials have been vacated. This is obviously very worrying.

However, when I read the person’s email, I got really furious. The person wrote, “I am concerned about her very much and fear that I would lose her forever. If we do not take actions now, we will lose her forever.

This is the funny thing about language. How it has the capacity to be interpreted in many different ways, depending on the writer’s language proficiency as well as the reader’s perceptions of things.

As I mentioned earlier, people who pay too much emphasis on diplomatic language annoy me. At the same time, I have become one of them when I read this email. Do allow me though to explain why it has infuriated me so.

The words ‘I’ and ‘lose’, when coined together implies ownership or possession. To me, the girl belongs to no one. Not her family, not the people who have exploited and used her and definitely not any NGOs or any individual working to help her.

The thought that just because we, the NGO, have given her shelter, medical treatment, training, financial support, etc. does not make her a possession.

Many people have often misinterpret the meaning of love. When we think that we love someone, we feel like possessing them. Families, marriage and relationships imply exclusivity and demand unwavering loyalty and obedience from one another that we often forget that we’re human beings, not objects.

I’ve learned this hard lesson through the relationships I’ve had. The more we think we own someone, the more we fear the thought of losing them. The more we fear losing them, chances are, we will.

If you have not watched the movie The Story of O, you should although I doubt you can find it in Malaysia. It tells the complexity of sexual relationships between a master and slave. We’re not talking about conventional slavery but a voluntary “contract” between a couple where one assumes the position of a master and the other a slave. This contract can be terminated at any time if either one or both wishes it to be.

If you have watched it or perhaps one day have the opportunity to do so, I would like to ask you to try to view it not just as an erotic movie which involves the act of sadomasochism, dominance and submission but an unconventional concept of love and ownership.

There is one scene in the movie where the man explained why he could offer his lover away so easily to other men without any feeling of jealousy or remorse. He said that the fact he could do this showed that he had truly owned her for isn’t it true that only the real master has the “legal” right to do whatever he wants with his possession? And if she decides to return to him after being with other men, then she truly belongs to him.

It’s a really strange concept to grasp but nonetheless a rational one. In such circumstances, perhaps one can say that nobody belongs to anyone unless if someone offers him or herself to someone willingly.

Some would say that the same kind of contract applies to marriage or even employment. But does this imply total control over your spouse or employee’s life? I certainly don’t think so.

Buddha said that the only way to eliminate suffering is when you renounce any kind of desire and this includes the desire to possess.


  1. There is such a concept of possession by default? Such as birth? Don't you belong to your parents?

    I think the context of 'losing her' in the e-mail refers not to possession but to being unable to be in the position to help her out of her situation.

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  3. No, I don't think a child belongs to anyone, not even their parents. They are given life by them but it doesn't mean they belong to them. They certainly don't choose to be borne or get to choose who they are borne into.

    What about a child who is being adopted then? Would the definition change? Would he/she belong to his/her biological parents or those who have taken care and brought him/her up?

    Even if the adoptive parents take care of the child, does it mean they own the child?

    If you own someone, surely it is your right to do whatever you want with the person; including selling him/her. Unfortunately, you can't.

    I have also considered the usage of the language on the email. That's why I wrote that language has the capacity to be interpreted in different ways depending on how you write and perceive it.