11.09.08

Defining the Meaningless

Posted in Islam, Language, Politics at 8:57 am by Haider

In my last post, I gave an example of the use of meaningless words in political discourse. But this post is slightly more controversial. It touches on issues that many find too sensitive to talk about, and do not usually direct their focus towards, because they’re too afraid of what they will discover.

Using meaningless terms in politics is one thing, but basing one’s religious views on meaningless statements is far more damaging. The sad fact is, this is a very common practice, and one that goes completely unnoticed in our midst.

Before I present the “touchy” example I would like to talk about, let’s begin with a not-so-controversial example, so I can define what I mean when I say that words can be “meaningless.”

If I was to say: “I stand for justice,” you won’t find it difficult to understand the statement. You will know that by “justice” I mean being fair and respecting people’s rights. After all, that’s what justice means. You might, at first, think that my statement is clear and quite meaningful. But you’ll soon realise that you have no clue what I mean.

Why?

Because I haven’t told you what I believe “fairness” means, and what I think “people’s rights” are. The statement is meaningless because it can have opposite meanings. “Justice” is a term used by every political party to describe the policies it advocates. For capitalists, capitalism is just, and communism is unjust. For communists, capitalism is unjust, and communism is just. Each has his own definition of justice. In order to understand my statement, you’d have to know what I mean by justice, and how my worldview translates into practical policies.

It’s just as meaningless as saying: “I have opinions,” because you haven’t stated what your opinions are (unless you’re trying to distinguish yourself from chimps).

For a statement to be meaningful, its relation to reality must be clear. In our example of justice, it is important to associate the word with the principles and practices I support, so you can know whether you support my view of justice or not. Without this clarification, the word “justice” doesn’t have a clear reference.

So how does this tie in with religious views?

Take the following statement: “Islam is compatible with human nature.”

While Muslims the world over pride themselves on following the only religion that’s compatible with human nature, they overlook the fact that they don’t know what “human nature” is in the first place!

Many Muslims haven’t stopped to think what human nature means, while others have come to define human nature according to their understanding of Islam (when it should be the other way around)! Either of the two ways, you can replace “Islam” in the above statement with the name of any other religion you wish.

To make the statement meaningful: How would you define human nature? How did you come to define it this way? And in what ways is Islam compatible with human nature?

11.07.08

The Promise of Change

Posted in Politics at 6:28 pm by Haider

Whenever I see the word “change” being used in a political campaign, I remember an incident my brother-in-law told me about:

He was once in a social gathering (i.e. a deewaniya) here in Kuwait, when a man running in a local election came in and was encouraging the attendees to vote for him. My brother-in-law recognized the man, and so he asked him: “In your campaign slogan, you say that you are working for change. What do you mean by that?”

The man replied: “Change is what people want.”

In other words, “change” is a buzz-word people want to hear, and this man doesn’t even know what it means, but used it anyway to win votes!

The odd thing is, even those who are mesmerized by the word “change” don’t know what it means! All they can associate with the word is relief from their existing problems.

However, change isn’t necessarily a good thing. It all depends on the direction this “change” will take us in.

I think, by now, you know why I’m making this point: many of Barack Obama’s supporters were mesmerized by his slogan: “Change We Can Believe In” (and other slogan variations, which were centered on the “change” theme) without really knowing what he means by this word, or what sort of policies he advocates.

Words such as: change, hope and justice are totally meaningless in political discourse because they could mean anything. The speaker means one thing (if he knows what it means in the first place, unlike our local politician I mentioned earlier) and the listeners understand it the way they want, and assume that this is what the speaker meant.

I don’t deny that Obama will bring about change, but I’m not too sure his supporters will be happy with the change he brings.

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