Thursday, November 29, 2012

A dire need to listen




We may be able to communicate better but we have come no closer to understanding each other, or wanting to do so. 

IT is a fact that we now live at a time when each day sees new technology that enables us to communicate with our family and friends as well as strangers on different continents with ease and speed.

It remains a bitter irony, therefore, that wars, armed conflicts and bitter racial and religious recriminations still occur.

The Internet has become a tool for our individual voices to be heard through blogs and social networks such as Facebook.

Those who use Twitter can express their thoughts – mundane or serious – in less than 140 words, wherever they may be, and have these read and followed by those who are interested in the same issues.

When we say “apple” or “blackberry”, we are not referring to the fruits but to products of this technology age we live in.

What is apparent, however, is that we all wish to be heard but we may not be so keen to listen. Thus, however fast or easy technology has made it for us to communicate with one another, it has not changed us from hearing only our voices and ignoring those with whom we disagree.

And perhaps there are far too many voices, as William Isaacs suggests in his book, Dialogue and The Art of Thinking Together, in which he writes: “We have an inflationary glut of words: more words, less and less meaning. Five-hundred-channel television services, millions of Web sites, and an endless stream of opinion from every media source about the latest political or social scandal race their way to you in a frenzied contest for your attention. Given so many different perspectives, we lose sight of any “common sense” we might make of it all.”

However bleak the world may be now, I would like to believe that there are still many of us who do wish for a peaceful world. We do know that there are many different social groups and organisations which advocate peace and a greater understanding of each other’s culture, race and religion.

There is also a greater need and an awareness for us to remember that there is a diversity of race, religions and cultures around the world.

How do we achieve a better understanding of each other? Perhaps we should not only just speak but also listen, and not ignore the opinions of those who do not think like us. There is a greater need for us to agree to disagree.

With regard to local news, I have noticed in recent years that the language in both headlines and articles in the mainstream media, as well as responses of readers of blogs and news portals, have sometimes become worryingly provocative, causing us to react strongly.

The Internet does not always offer us accurate news-gathering either. It is a communication tool where we are free to say whatever we wish without having to prove our claims. However accurate or inaccurate news portals, blogs, and activists’ websites can be, they create a realm where grievances and frustrations have a place.

If we can accept that each of us has a right to have a voice, then the Internet offers a way for everyone to vent their anger.

However, there remains a danger that the freedom of expression which the Internet offers may lead to some kind of conflict, especially if we are unable to sift through the many different opinions expressed and realise that not all that is spoken or written is the truth.

We have read about too many wars and we have seen both natural and man-made disasters cause so much pain and suffering.

So far, here in Malaysia, apart from floods, we have had the good fortune not to experience other natural disasters such as hurricanes or drought. We are blessed by an abundance of food. Most of us have a roof over our head.

So, I wonder if we bicker about race and religion because we think we do not have any important and pressing issues to argue about, and if perhaps we may have too much time on our hands.
I would like to say to my fellow Malaysians that we should heed the advice of world leaders who seek to diffuse potentially explosive events.

For example, after the attack on a Coptic church in Egypt on New Year’s Day this year, when many innocent people were killed, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Shayk Ali Gomaa, one of the most respected jurists in the Sunni Muslim world, released a statement which, in part, said:

“The Islam that we were taught in our youth is a religion that calls for peace and mercy. The first prophetic saying that is taught to a student of Islam is, ‘Those who show mercy are shown mercy by the All-Merciful. Show mercy to those who are on earth and the One in the heavens will show mercy to you.’

“What we have learnt about Islam has been taken from the clear, pristine, and scholarly understanding of the Quran, ‘O people we have created you from a single male and female and divided you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another.’

“Islam therefore makes no distinction among races, ethnicities, or religions in its belief that all people are deserving of basic human dignity.

“Furthermore, Islam has laid down justice, peace and cooperation as the basic principles of interaction between religious communities, advising Muslims that the proper conduct towards those who do not show aggression towards us is to act with goodness and justice. Indeed, this is the way of the true Muslim, for ‘God loves the just’.

“As in all matters, the Prophetic example is the best of all models. The Prophet considered non-Muslims and Muslims as participating in a social contract which was inviolable.

“The promise of a Muslim is sacrosanct, for as he said, ‘Whoever unjustly persecutes one with whom he has an agreement, or short-changes his rights, or burdens him beyond his capacity, or takes something from him without his blessing, I myself will be an argument against him on the Day of Judgement.’

“What sort of Muslim could it be that not only deprives himself of the intercession of the Prophet of God in front of his Lord, but indeed puts himself at odds with him?”

There is a great need for all of us to communicate more with each other in order to avoid conflict, whoever and wherever we are, and perhaps, one of the best ways is through the use of dialogue, which Isaacs defines as a “conversation with a centre, not sides ... It lifts us out of polarisation and into a greater common sense ...”
> This article is extracted from a paper presented by the writer in her keynote address at the recent UKM International Language Conference. The writer is Royal Fellow, School of Language Studies and Linguistics, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), chairman of the Community Services Committee of the Malaysian Red Crescent Society, and holds a B.A. Hons in Chinese Studies, University of Oxford.


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