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Articles, Commentaries

May we remain tentative when understanding others

By Ooi Kee Beng [Editorial in Penang Economic Monthly, October 2011]

Calling a spade a spade is easy enough when you live in a small monolingual and mono-cultural society – such societies are necessarily small. But try doing that in a multilingual and multicultural place like Malaysia, and you quickly realise that a lot of empathy, skill and tentativeness, especially, are involved in daily communication.

And I am not even thinking of the fact that all languages are full of dialectal nuances and class-based preferences; or that most people do not – and know that they do not – master their language of choice.

Truth is, we do not understand each other very well, whether within a culture or between cultures. What makes it possible for us to get along and function side by side is our wisdom of leaving things unsettled for the moment.

Sufficient understanding is what we seek, not total accord. Showing understanding is our best chance of understanding each other.

What I find surprising is how often I don’t understand my own kind, people who speak my language (or languages). More than that, of the people I dislike, most are of my own culture.

Assuming that this is the case for humans in general, we are faced with an enigma here. Individuals are so much a function of myriad aspects of human interaction that it is honestly difficult to pinpoint what is culturally or genetically common in our liking or disliking of others.

So what does it mean to be a racist? And what does being provincial mean?

I do agree that we cannot function without prejudices. But when prejudices lose their tentative nature, then we have a problem. Bigotry, in short, results from prejudices forgetting their roots. Exposure does – though not always – challenge our prejudices. Provincialism or parochialism thus seems easy to remedy. Racism, however, is something else. It is a much tougher nut to crack, especially when sealed by an ideological or religious pretext. Perhaps, if it is brought home to a racist that he or she is just as prone to hate people of his own group as he or she is to hate outsiders, then he or she may realise that short cuts can only take him or her so far.

It is not misinterpretation or misunderstanding of others that is our problem. It is our failure to accept our fate that we never really communicate very well – individual to individual – that is our curse. Humility is not so much an ethical stand as it is an attitude that comes from knowing that we seldom understand each other. A tentative mode approach is our only guarantee against turning mad – or becoming a bigot.

Socrates was right – “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing”.



About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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