Mysay: Words cannot carry meaning the way actions do

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on March 26, 2018 - April 01, 2018.
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Humans will always have conflicts. It is understandable, even acceptable, when these are due to irreconcilable differences in material interests, be they economic in nature or cultural. But more often than not, conflicts grow out of differences in the words used rather than differences in values.

Disagreements that are generated by the words being used are what we call “contradictions”. Contradictions don’t exist in nature; they are purely cultural and purely literal. Words and phrases can contradict each other, concepts can contradict each other, but in nature, what you have are conflicts for resources and space, not contradictions.

Contradictions occur when we adopt a strict attitude in defining words. If it were more generally accepted that words used in daily interactions need not be precise at all, then fewer misunderstandings would occur, and fewer conflicts based on rigid dogma and tight principles would take place.

Some of the clearest examples of conflicts that stem from contradictions are found in religion. Religions are more than the phrases and words most commonly used to define them, but the fundamentalist tendency is always present. In fact, one can almost be sure that, to the fundamentalist mind, words are meant to confine rather than define and describe a religion, and to constrain behaviour rather than to deepen and enrich it.

Why are religions often so tightly defined? Well, for one thing, once defined, they can easily be wielded as a rough political tool. Thus, there is an unavoidable dialectic in religion between its spiritual and psychological goals and its political impact.

Since this dialectic is not always easy to pin down because it is a highly emotional one, it is more prudent to look beyond the words and review a religious route, or any system of thought, through the behaviour it commonly generates rather than through a strict study of its precepts.

Wang Gungwu, perhaps Malaysia’s greatest historian, once told me a story about how a village in Borneo converted to Islam. A devout Muslim had visited the village and stayed for some time. This man carried himself with great dignity, behaved himself impeccably and went about his business without troubling anyone. He said his prayers and performed his daily rituals devoutly. In the end, the village converted to Islam because the villagers yearned to act in the admirable way that this man did. Hardly any words were used or any attempt to convert the villagers was made. The good spiritual presence he exuded was what attracted the villagers, not any words.

I remember once asking the famous anthropologist, Professor Shamsul Amri Baharuddin a question that puzzles many Western-trained Southeast Asianists: “How did it come about that Islam managed to spread so effectively in Southeast Asia to the extent that, without the use of arms, it subsumed all the earlier kingdoms in the Nusantara?”

His insightful answer to me, and I hope I did not misunderstand him here, was that Islam came as a liberator from traditional power — from power that had slowly but steadily suppressed the common people for too long, as is the wont of power.

As Islam established itself in the region, though, a struggle ensued between Islam as a liberating philosophy and the religion becoming the new clothes that the powerful could now wear. This struggle between, on the one hand, power — whether established or aspirant — and, on the other, spiritual liberation, is a constant and common one that must occur wherever there is management of human affairs.

This perpetual battle to prevent power from becoming despotic is one that has to be fought anew by every generation.

In Chinese, the word for “contradiction” is “mao dun”, literally meaning “spear” and “shield”. There is an interesting story behind this. There was once a street salesman, the story goes, who would boast that his spears could pierce any material at all. He also sold shields that he claimed could not be pierced by any material either. Clearly, in making these claims, he created a “contradiction” — a “mao dun” — through carelessness, insincerity or his need to be categorical in his claims.

I am sure all of us are often too categorical with our words and we create contradictions that we then do not care to correct, and to save face, we are prepared to enter into conflict. How much more are we not willing to make corrections when the contradictions were created by our forefathers and we feel the need to defend the honour of family, clan, tribe or race?

And so, careless words put into action lead to conflict; contradictions, which don’t exist in real life, become real conflicts. What we should do is look at the long-term results of the practices, more than the words, in order to judge what the good sides and what the bad sides of any teaching are.

In this context, another thing to consider is that we rely a lot on analogies and metaphors when we think. We sometimes wax lyrical without realising or admitting it, carried away by the strength of the stretch of the imagination that being poetic allows. All that is well and good, but to mistake a literary device for a logical claim can lead to dire consequences.

Datuk Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the executive director of Penang Institute. His recent books include The Eurasian Core and its Edges: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on the History of the World (ISEAS, 2016)

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