Should the real ‘war’ be against lazy thinking and bad English?

As early as 1946, George Orwell argued that English language is facing a ‘decline’ of sorts. In his essay Politics and the English Language, Orwell pointed out that English writing in his age – and I would argue, even in our age – suffers from two main problems, i.e., staleness of imagery and lack of precision. Using five paragraphs written by eminent thinkers and writers of his age, he suggests that we are witnessing this ‘mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence’ which has become the ‘ most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing.’ He argues further that a word like ‘democracy’ has not only no agreed definition (just like the word ‘terrorism’) but the attempt to make one is resisted from all parties, involved. I quote Orwell at length about democracy, because it is such an important argument

In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. 

Whether it is the US Elections or the recent terrorist attacks in Beirut and Paris, news media (and those who write for social media) have resorted to use of words that seem to have lost their meaning. Orwell points out that the words ‘democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another.’ What he is implying here is true of other words, concepts, ideas and phrases – used often for the ‘value’ they project- good, useful or pleasant and unpleasant, rather than any real concept that we are trying to understand or idea we wish to express.

In the age of social media, where ‘content curation’ has become far more important, than ‘content creation’ this problem has only become worse. I am as guilty of ‘sharing’ ideas that are not mine, in an attempt to sound cool or look profound, but not realizing that my own intellectual contribution to this idea has been zero. No input, no hard work, no clear thinking – just agreeing or disagreeing with something – with often a very superficial understanding of what has been said.

Photo credit : wikipedia.org
Photo credit : wikipedia.org

Similarly, English media outlets around the world use terms like ‘tolerance’ ‘terrorism’ ‘violence’ and ‘sectarianism’ and ‘democracy’ without really critically examining what these words mean. What does each of this word mean in a specific context – what are its consequences and what do people in each region/ country think about the word and the concept associated with it. How is the lived reality of a Lebanese different from that of an American when it comes to his/her experience of democracy or inter-faith tolerance? Much of this is lost in the rush to explain the ‘extremist violence’ gripping all of Lebanon and the blame is usually assigned to one or two actors, and that somehow satisfies our sensibilities – given that we want easy explanations, much of the time.

Consider this a call for greater vigilance against lazy thinking and mental banking. We need a great war against bad use of English words, phrases and expressions, which obfuscate and confuse as much as they illuminate. We need a ‘global war on bad English’ as much as we had a ‘Global war on terror’. While the latter has failed, I do believe that with some vigilance, we can start to win the first one. The choice is truly ours to make!

Does Islam need ‘reform’?

I am truly upset and angry that more than 12 people have died because of some vile cartoons. It should not have been, but it is so. I think the important task for people in France now, as well as around the world is to come to terms with it and deal with the aftermath. Unfortunately, we are witnessing a lot of questioning along the lines of: Why aren’t Muslims condemning the attack (the answer: Yes, most Muslims are condemning these killings) and Why aren’t Muslims ex-communicating the killers (Pierce Morgan said this, in his recent column). The answer to Mr. Mogran is that unfortunately there is no ex-communication in Islam – This is because there is no ‘Church’ in Islam, like the Catholic faith, to which he belongs. So, before we all start pontificating and becoming ‘experts’ on Islam, extremism and French culture of ‘freedom of speech’, which as we have seen has been quite shallow – given that Charlie Hebdo fired a cartoonist, not too long ago, for drawing ‘anti-semitic’ cartoons, here are a few points to consider:

  1. Can we please see this for what it is : An attack on a publication, by three lunatics, who were motivated by some motives – we still don’t know what they were – the only ‘facts’ we have are that they shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’ and that the prophet has been avenged. Beyond this, we don’t know much about their real intents, who sent them and for what purposes. So, any speculation about Islam’s role and its impact on creating a chaotic world should be tempered.
  2. Though there are violent Muslim groups and militias that claim to work for bringing about an ‘Islamic world order’, it is more a chimera than actual reality. The worst of the lot, ISIS has been an aberration of the vilest kind that came about after the collapse of Iraq and the ongoing civil war in Syria. Religion the cause for this group to emerge? No. Geo-politics: Yes.
  3. Yes, there is a problem in terms of how Muslims in Europe respond to provocation. A similar provocation in the U.S, would resulted in an articulate response – perhaps with some mockery thrown in for good measure. Unfortunately, the immigrants who go to Europe are often impoverished, not too educated and are at the very bottom of European societies. This does lead to resentment and (perhaps) radicalization of youth.
  4. Why is the media framing this as a problem with ‘Islam’? Though similar protests have occurred in the past, during the Salman Rushdie controversy and the Danish Cartoons one, the issue really is one of relations of power. Muslims in many part of the world are marginalized, colonized and often attacked with drones. This reality fuels anger and resentment. I think many of the violent actions that we see are a result of such perceived and real oppression. Will the ‘West’ recognize this and amend the real and (perceived) injustices in places around the world?
  5. Before we call for ‘reform’ in the Muslim world, let us in the West also realize that we need reform too. We need to reform ourselves and get rid of our addictions to war, easy credit and perhaps Coca Cola. This too, is causing many health hazards and deaths.

I am personally tired of all of that is going on. Tired of people who carry out such attacks, tired of the apologies and those who ask for it and tired of those who publish these cartoons, to lampoon, attack and insult. Freedom of speech has to be placed in context. As much as I defend freedom of speech – remember I am in the Academic world, which wouldn’t be as it is, here, if not for freedom of speech – I do think there is such a thing as irresponsibility. And with power to shape opinion, create dialogue or mock, comes responsibility. Those in positions to write, think and create ideas should be sensitive to this.

Why you don’t need so much “breaking news”

 
terrorism

 I read an interesting article on Guardian critiquing novelist Rolf Dobelli’s ideas that reading news can be dangerous for you. The kind of “breaking,” “live,” news that characterizes much of our experience these days is not very helpful and at worst, actually can be harmful to your well-being   His argument is that real insight and understanding is never instant. “ It takes time to piece together complex causality, and the global news machine of bite-sized nuggets doesn’t do complexity,” he adds. In this day and age of global violence, financial crisis, natural disasters; even the smallest incident can (usually) be blown out of proportion and become part of our consciousness like never before.

In his article, he makes a few claims that are worth examining. I use some of his claims and also add a few, that I think are relevant:

Firstly, that news media misleads. Often confusing correlation with causation. Pick any big issue, and chances are that many journalists are making this mistake. He says:” Take the following event (borrowed from Nassim Taleb). A car drives over a bridge, and the bridge collapses. What does the news media focus on? The car. The person in the car. Where he came from. Where he planned to go. How he experienced the crash (if he survived). But that is all irrelevant. What’s relevant? The structural stability of the bridge. That’s the underlying risk that has been lurking, and could lurk in other bridges. But the car is flashy, it’s dramatic, it’s a person (non-abstract), and it’s news that’s cheap to produce. News leads us to walk around with the completely wrong risk map in our heads. So terrorism is over-rated. Chronic stress is under-rated. The collapse of Lehman Brothers is overrated. Fiscal irresponsibility is under-rated. Astronauts are over-rated. Nurses are under-rated.” This is a compelling argument and one that one sees occurring, all the time.

Media exaggerates: Just to put this argument in context, here is an interview with a Terrorism expert, David Schanzer, from Duke University. Here is the article about the recent Boston Marathon bombings and his reaction: “ Q: What is the trend today? Is terrorism being used less now than it was a few years ago, or are we just not hearing so much about it?

David Schanzer: The decade since 9/11 has seen less terrorism (of all ideologies) than other recent decades. There were 168 attacks in the ten years after 9/11, but in the 1970s, there were 1357 attacks.” But given the massive coverage that these events receive these days, one is inclined to believe that violence related to terrorist attacks is on the RISE, whereas it is not so.

 

Media is part of the mass consumption ethic: If one were to critique media, perhaps the most honest critique comes not from the capitalist or libertarian framework; but the Marxist framework. Here is Theodore Adorno, pointing this out in Minima Moralia. He says:” To speak immediately of what is immediate, is to behave no differently from that novelist, who adorns their marionettes with the imitations of the passions of the yesteryear like cheap jewelry, and who sets persons in motion, who are nothing other than inventory-pieces of machinery, as if they could still act as subjects, and as if something really depended on their actions. The gaze at life has passed over into ideology, which conceals the fact that it no longer exists.” This observation points to an ethic, where reality is manufactured, produced and sold, with happy consumers sitting by and waiting for their problems to be produced, analyzed and often solved – all in “real time” TV. This is the ethic that makes slacktivism possible, and also one where often “analysis,” and even “thinking,” is outsourced to the “experts,” because it is more efficient and easy to do.

The problem of spreading ignorance and rumor: This is all too evident at the outbreak of every “major” disaster. Be it a hurricane, fire or a “terrorist” attack, rumors are aplenty immediately following the disaster. While more than 90% of the material just following most incidents is chaff and useless, this is precisely what captures the imagination of most of us. It is this voyeuristic, dark side of our personalities that media aims to feed, with the constant, live updates and rumor mongering and (often) half-assed assessments by “experts.” While those who understand communications and crisis management know that this is where “framing” of events is occurring, and it is where “truth” is defined, often the media outlets behave with callousness.

So, am I advocating a return to the stone-age? No twitter, Facebook, live CNN coverage? The short answer is no, while the longer answer is ‘may be.’ While media has become a part of our consciousness and is critical in shaping our understanding of who we are, I believe it is in some ways even impeding our thinking, unless we are able to carefully discern the wheat from the chaff. As a regular user of media outlets (print, online and social) and having been a news junkie for most of my formative years, I realize the value of careful, thoughtful analysis and also somewhat skeptical of instant news or reports that claim to explain the world in 10 minutes. As researchers, journalists need to be more careful, methodical and also aware of the issues they are reporting on. Barring a small fraction, I would hazard a guess and say that most do not know what they are talking about. As a parting thought, and further proof that journalistic knee-jerk reactions often do more harm than good, here is Bill Maher trying very hard to prove to an expert that his knowledge of Islam and history is far superior; since he gets to be on TV and is considered a “star”. This is nothing but polemics, hatred and bigotry, passing off as “analysis.” And nowadays, you don’t have to watch the right-wing media for this kind of shallow reactions, unfortunately ; this is becoming all too mainstream.