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Life Arts    H2'ed 9/16/17

On being Definitionally Challenged

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Author 54887
Message Prakash Kona

Definitionally Challenged
Definitionally Challenged
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People who tend to use language without telling us what parameters they associate with the words they use, I have decided to call them "definitionally challenged." Irrespective of the political position whether it is the right or the left, left of right or right of left, center to the left of right or center to the right of left, leftists, rightists, centrists, identitarians -- the worst of the lot who have divided the world along imaginary lines, to these abusers of language I have only one thing to say: read Rumi, Shakespeare and Wittgenstein. Read Rumi to understand what it means to recognize that otherness of the self. Read Shakespeare to know that whatever we call human nature is complex and cannot be reduced to simple formulae. Read Wittgenstein to realize that clarity in thoughts and words saves one from confusion and misunderstanding.

To me the definitionally challenged are the abusers of words without a sense of otherness, with a poor or formulaic understanding of people and with the arrogance that they own the language given to use. This is not simply because they assume that everybody knows what they mean, but that they deliberately indulge in using words as abstractions and repeat those words as if to convince themselves that eventually they will start sounding real. More importantly, they want everybody else to believe that what they say without ever clearly defining what they mean is the truth. That's what corporate media is all about. That is what social media extremists are doing in effect. That is what the bored-with-their-pathetic-lives twitterati is doing. In good old days, people came out and spoke to other people. At least that had a semblance of humanity. Now they just sit before the system and propound as gospel whatever little knowledge of the world that they possess.

Among the abusers who need to be seriously checked for being definitionally challenged are the politicians, journalists and pseudo-intellectuals of various political shades. Since I think that social media is an online version of a "mob" against which great thinkers from Aristotle to John Stuart Mill have warned, I am not willing to include them in my list of linguistically disoriented people. It is not that I have no faith in social media as a site of resistance movements. It is just that I am deeply skeptical of the intentions of people who use these platforms to rant against the world. I wholeheartedly agree with Charles Bukowski that "there is enough treachery, hatred violence absurdity in the average/ human being to supply any given army on any given day" (The Genius of the Crowd).

George Orwell in "Politics and the English Language" warns against the operations of "Political language -- and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists -- designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." When you don't define what you mean when you use a word, what you merely do is give the appearance of concreteness to an abstraction. It is as good as making a unicorn or some other mythical bird or animal sound as real as a dog in your neighborhood. This refusal to define what you mean when you use a word is at the heart of the "lies" we are forced to consume on a day to day basis.

The reasons for being definitionally challenged are not physical but moral in my view. Deeply self-centered and narcissistic people in order to conceal their own bitterness against a world that they feel has treated them unfairly will go to any extent to make lies sound like the truth and murder respectable. They need to disguise their anger and pain and what better way to do it than find some abstract idea or notion and give it the appearance of logical correctness. Those who genuinely believe human freedom is for everyone irrespective of race, religion, caste, creed or gender can never do that. Self-appointed spokespersons for various lobbies who are desperate to find a platform from which they can deliver their gospel and who are backed by ignorant mobs both on and off line -- it is they who we need to fear the most. Their aims are divisive and their motives nothing short of dubious.

Long before Jose Marti or Nazim Hikmet, the French revolutionary Armand Barbès stood for the image of a self-effacing, true lover of liberty and human freedom. Admired by none other than Marx, this romantic revolutionary from the 19th century is immortalized with one line in Flaubert's novel Sentimental Education as "the sort of man who would dive under a carriage to help a fallen horse." Flaubert who had met Barbès and was deeply impressed said of him: "He loved Liberty" and he did it without speechifying, like someone from the pages of Plutarch. To my mind he was the one who was on the right path, whereas the rest of them (and almost all of our kind) had lost their way."

By placing goodness in opposition to "speechifying" Flaubert recognizes the fact that those who are dedicated to human progress are not as keen to promote their own personal agendas through the abuse of language that serves only the shamefully limited ends of the user. The largely unnoticed sacrifice of the monk Swami Nigamanand Saraswati who went on a fast unto death for 115 days to protest against illegal mining around the Ganges falls in the category of nobility that Flaubert says of "the one who was on the right path." The senior lawyer Colin Gonsalves who is also the founder-director of the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) is in my view one of those few men who is committed to the cause of a just and compassionate world without the morbid craving for publicity that we see in others who do so much lesser than him. Among politicians it is hard to see a human face and Swami Agnivesh, who is also an intellectual and social activist, might be one of those few exceptions who prove the rule.

I cannot say I am not impressed with Gaurav Jain the law student from Delhi University and the supportive members of his family for whom I have nothing but respect because they are standing up to the meaningless beef ban in spite of threats and without the police protection that is being denied them. If "speechifying" is the one word definition for the definitionally challenged, we can be sure that there are people who are opposed to it by giving clarity to their words through their actions.

Do it because you believe in it -- is something Gandhi is constantly telling in different words -- and not because you must do it. Though I live in the second most populated nation on earth I think we can count on fingers the number of people worth talking about who are doing good because they believe in it.


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Prakash Kona is a writer, teacher and researcher who lives in Hyderabad, India. He is currently Professor at the Department of English Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad.

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