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Words Cannot Carry Meaning the Way Actions Do

By Ooi Kee Beng, for The Edge Weekly, March 26, 2018

Humans will always go into conflicts. It is understandable, and even acceptable when these are due to irreconcilable differences in material interests, be these 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 appear 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 less misunderstandings would occur, and less conflicts based on stiff dogma and tight principles would take place.

Some of the clearest examples of conflicts that stem from contradictions are found in religions. Religions are more than the phrases and words most commonly used to define them, but the fundamentalist tendency is always in attendance. 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 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 religions 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 instead review a religious route or any system of thought, through the behaviour it commonly generates 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 them and stayed with them for some time. This man carried himself with great dignity, behaved himself impeccably and went about his business without troubling anyone, and 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 at convert the villagers made. The good spiritual presence he exuded was what attracted the villages, 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 it, without the use of arms, subsumed all the earlier kingdoms in the Nusantara under it?”
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 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 adorn. This struggle between on 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 limit 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 when selling spears would boast that his could pierce any material at all. Sorry to say, 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 “maodun” created by his 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 go into conflict. How much more are we not willing to do that 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 realizing or admitting it, carried away by the strength of the stretch in imagination that being poetic allows. All that is fine and good, but to mistake a literary device for a logical claim can lead to dire consequences.


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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