KWENU: Our Culture, Our Future



A bitter thought on being “bitter”


Hank Eso


       Sunday 27 April 2008


It is an immutable fact, that humans do get bitter and indeed a bitter thought,

that some would feel bitter that some one said something bitter about their bitterness.


One benefit of a well-rounded secondary education in Africa’s colonial era was the mandatory study the dying language of Latin for those attending parochial schools.  Even in post-independent Africa, most schools taught Latin since most English words derived from it or its Greek counterpart.


Today, the use of language is an art by itself. Politically speaking, language is used to promote, exculpate, rebuff or demonize.  Words, well crafted, could also be a distilled gesture- for good or bad. Similarly, words could be used to attribute to the speaker, an insidious and malicious intent, where none was intended. Language or words –especially derogatory or fighting words -- tend to stick like mud.  As my Latin teacher would say; “Fortiter calumnaire aliquid adhaere bit” or “Fling plenty of mud and some will stick”. 


Hard and acerbic words are infrequently part of any national conversation. This is especially so, during partisan politicking or electioneering, except of course, for sleek, self-editing politicians, who must parse their every word to mean not what they say, but what others would like to hear. However, there is no gainsaying, that it is now fashionable to be politically correct, even if we have to twist, dock or bury the truth. Likewise, in the political realm, it seems okay to parse whatever an opponent says and attribute an alternative motive to it, when we know exactly what they meant.


Now that the Pennsylvania primary is over –as well as won and lost- it is perhaps worth revisiting a key event that preceded it.  When ahead of the primary, Barack Obama used the word “bitter”, in the same sentence with rural small towns, Pennsylvania, USA; he instantly had a problem from hell, even though he was referring to a confluence of events.  Obama’s key words were,

 “And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”  


Remove the words “bitter”, “guns” and “religion” –all of which are individually explosive, what is left are a subset of explosive words: “anti-immigrant” and “anti-trade” and xenophobia, which incidentally, are also prevalent emotive and volatile political issues.

In retrospect, let us ask some hardheaded questions. Was Obama’s choice of word intemperate and entirely wrong and out of context, or was his intent twisted for political gain? For our general edification, the synonyms for “bitter” include, sour, acid, tart, astringent, vinegary, pungent, virulent and harsh. In a strict sense, it means “opposite of sweet” or “something unpalatable to the mind”.


Evidently, Obama used the word “bitter” in the context of an expression or show of human emotions. However, as an emotion, bitterness does not necessarily malign, since it may be a natural reaction; a vexed cry, that is a tad beyond being angry.  In addition, quite often, bitterness is predicated on genuine reasons of extreme hurt and anger, regardless of our status and domicile. It is safe then, to say that bitterness is the aftermath of grief or extreme betrayal. As such, by itself, bitterness is not necessarily malignant, but caused by the malignity of a traumatic experience. It would, therefore not be farfetched to say that Obama lost in Pennsylvania, in part, because the voters were “bitter” about what he said hitherto about them.


Granted that politics is a game of double take, doublespeak, sound bites and taking advantage of the weaknesses of the opponent, regardless of whether they are right or wrong; nonetheless, what rankles is when people shy away from reality or twist words for political gains. It is also bothersome that those who seek to lead would rally forces against those who speak the truth to power just to score points in the polls or just garner a cheep point with the media.


During his just concluded visit, Pope Benedict XVI, came, saw, and left Americans and the world elated. Of all the things he had said – and he said plenty- one sentence stayed with me.  “Truth is not an imposition”, he said. Indeed, truth is a constant. Those who gloss over it, can find it shockingly discomforting when told the truth, just in the same way the truth can convict or set just about anyone free. Conventional wisdom claims that while sticks and stones may break bones, not so words. However, in these dog days of politics and electioneering, bellicosity is the norm and therefore, some feel inclined to behave as if truth is an alien concept. That makes me angry – but certainly, not bitter.


But am I allowed the freedom to be bitter? And is it politically correct to admit being bitter? It all depends on the context. Let me answer the question first.  Yes, in some ways, I can see myself being bitter.  And let’s face it; most people are bitter, even if they will not publicly admit it. An angry person may vent, even using malice-filled words.  But it takes a bitter person to splash an ex-lover’s prurient bedside manners on YouTube.  Surely also, if one lost their home or job through no fault of theirs, but through the mistake or treachery of their representative, they can be bitter.  If we accept that people can feel betrayed, then we must accept that people can also be bitter.


Being bitter is a personal thing: when we divorce, lose a home, or a child to drug overdose, to a drunken driver or to a gun-wielding random shooter. Yes, we can be bitter, individually or collectively.  And being bitter is human and universal, even if Hillary Clinton does not think so. But bitter is not politically correct these days, if many individuals are lumped into that cadre.  However, I consider those who admit to being bitter as being far more honest than those who duck the issue.


The Watergate scandal that President Gerald Ford had called a “national nightmare” had made many Americans bitter, as did the Vietnam War.  If memory serves me right, it was a visibly “bitter” Hillary Rodham Clinton  who proclaimed to Matt Lauer of the NBC Today Show on 27 January 1998, that “… this is a battle… it is a vast right wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president”.  I do not recall anyone chiding Mrs. Clinton for being bitter. Indeed, she garnered sympathy and we all accepted that she was rightfully bitter for what Bill Clinton’s republican detractors did to him. Undoubtedly, many Americans were also bitter on behalf of the Clintons.


It is a paradox and quite counterfactual too, that we can allow a person to be bitter about an issue, but cannot agree that a college or comity of people could also be collectively bitter about a singular or binding issue. In fact, we are pressed to believe that being bitter is not a groupthink trait. Where does that leave the people disenfranchised by the executives of Enron, Tyco, WorldCom?  Are we to suggest that they are not collectively bitter because it is politically incorrect to be so disposed? I think not. Outsourcing and off shoring of American jobs have left many bitter. One just needs to admit it.  Who is to say that Americans who do not have healthcare insurance but watch CEOs rake in millions in salaries, bonuses and benefits are not bitter? Forgiving as we are, can we definitely say without prevarication, that those who lost loved ones in 9-11 attacks are not bitter?  I think not.


Without going into the pesky details, recently a fellow black man – well dressed, articulate and seemingly in need of a one-off assistance – swindled some money off me in broad day light and right in front of my home. I believed then, that I was helping a stranger in need. I was damn wrong.  He played me for a fool. And should you want to know, I am bitter about it, and angry with myself. Certainly, I’m not bitter for losing the cash he promised to refund the next day, but for his making it almost impossible for me to trust the next sleek guy, black, white or brown, who comes along and is really in need of assistance. However, my bitterness is more profound for the wrong lessons the man imparted on to my kids who witnessed the encounter, and who should have benefited from the lessons of my true altruism and kindness to a stranger.  I’m also bitter that the fellow has made me unnecessarily suspicious of any otherwise honest person. I am bitter that, just as Obama gives hope to every black kid, that con man and his ilk gives every black child a complex about their race by stereotyping his race.


I have followed with the utmost interest how Obama’s words about “bitter” Americans has come to haunt him because they were exploited out of context, as being “condescending” and “elitist”.  Well, we react as individuals and depending on the circumstances, and may find ourselves being angry, bitter, resigned, resentful or indignant about a given situation.  Those who say that these normal human responses, even if extreme, cannot be collectively applied to some people or parts of a nation are deceptive and duplicitous.  Those who want to play Ostrich may go ahead and do so.


Sadness, bitterness, anger, rage, resignation, indignation, vindictiveness, vengeance, joy and happiness, are human emotions, and people exhibit them reflexively. Bitterness may be extreme, relative and therefore, used less acceptably.  Perhaps the synonym, which is angry, is more appropriate. However, the fact is that the world, including America, is full of “bitter” people, but hardly anyone wants to admit it, lest they admit their culpability in contributing to those bitter feelings. Also, it is clear that even those who were once justifiably bitter, are loath to be cast as such and will not claim bitterness as their forte, even if justified.


Unquestionably, there are many bitter people inside and outside Zimbabwe, considering what has happened to that nation. Likewise, we can find bitter people in Iraq, Israel, Gaza, Kosovo, Tibet and Burma. One may need to also checkout Srebrenica, Rwanda and Darfur.


Many parents are bitter when the society fails them and a trusted priest or cop molests a child or when a known pedophile kills a child.   Likewise, communities are bitter when without their knowledge; a registered offender is insinuated into their neighborhoods. Ditto when toxic materials are dumped in the vicinity of their community. Similarly, and without their patriotism being at risk, there are families who are bitter for having lost sons or daughters in a war they do not believe in. Let’s be real and face the facts. Let’s also speak power to the truth.  It is that height of remorseless cynicism to be bitter about something and yet deny it, simply because it is politically incorrect to admit as much. It is almost analogous to someone being ashamed of having cancer.


As an avid reader of William Safire’s weekly column “On Language”, I know that words evolve and that their true meanings get mangled and defused. For goodness sake, let us not call a spade a spoon or change the word “bitter” into something sinister and deadly.  That will be a bitter loss for the traditionalist lexicographers and a bittersweet victory for revisionists.  How would we contemplate and indeed engage in forgiveness, or rise above the fray of incivility, if we do not accept that we can sin, err or be bitter and accept that as humans, we are predisposed to doing immoral things.


Arguably, in the realm of partisan politics all human manifestations are possible, including hypocrisy and callous cynicism.  Lack of consensus on Americans or Iraqi’s being bitter is definitional and more of a disagreement on values.  Perhaps, it was too harsh of Obama to proclaim a Christian nation as having some malcontent citizens, pedestrian enough to exhibit bitterness. But that predisposition itself --a dispiriting bookend -- smacks of coldhearted cynicism. It was as if being bitter had become synonymous to being unpatriotic instead of being resentful, aggrieved, woeful, petulant, splenetic, sullen or sorrowful. 


For any public figure to become so self-righteous and sufficiently impaired by denial to begin to contemplate that their nation does not harbor bitter persons, is hardly a divination. Rather, it is being dangerously susceptible to wishful thinking. When people conveniently dodge the truth or real issues, and use sound bites as a shibboleth, then it is they, rather than they persons they attempt to judge that engages in a behavior that could be characterized as duplicitous. That ought to make some right thinking, honest and straight-talking people bitter. To deny for the sake of political expediency that there are no “bitter” people in the world, America included, is so unreal, if not delusional.   


Before leaving this matter alone, think of this: It is an immutable fact, that humans do get bitter and indeed a bitter thought, that some would feel bitter that some one said something bitter about their bitterness.


With neither anger nor partiality, until next time, keep the law, stay impartial, and observe closely.



Hank Eso is a columnist for  His commentaries on Nigerian politics and global issues have appeared in The New Times (Lagos), African Profile International (New York), The Nigerian And Africa Abroad (New York), African Market News (New Jersey), and


© Hank Eso, Sunday 27 April 2008


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