COMMENT: Semantics of dishonesty —Saroop Ijaz - Wednesday, February 02, 2011

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Salmaan Taseer is assassinated while Khalid Khawaja is martyred. The word shaheed has become devoid of any objective connotations and is only instructive to the extent of gauging the religious-political leaning of the person using it

Uncertain times in Pakistan have given currency to a variety of new terms. The terms currently in vogue are ‘liberal fascist’, ‘Jinnah’s Pakistan’, ‘the common man’, ‘silent majority’ and, most recently, ‘rightsizing’. Most of these terms have been in existence for some time now, and have just been reinvigorated by the recent political and social climate. Liberal fascist, as an example, was probably coined in the context of mainstream public discourse in Pakistan around 2003-2004 and is recently back in fashion. The primary obstacle in comprehending terms like these is that there is no agreed upon connotations of these terms, and hence, on many occasions, using them is meaningless; however, in most instances the usage is detrimental to the discourse.

Arguably, George Orwell’s best essay is ‘Politics and the English Language’. In the essay, Orwell looks at the decline of the English language and the consequences it has on politics and the thought process. To explain the correlation between thought and language, he gives the analogy of man taking to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then failing all the more completely because he drinks. According to him, language becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. Language has to deteriorate because political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Orwell gives the example of the continuance of British rule in India and the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan, arguing that these instances can indeed be defended, but only by arguments that are too brutal for mass consumption. Orwell was primarily concerned about the decadence of the English language, but most of what he says remains relevant to Pakistan today as regards to corruption and the inaccuracy of our thoughts. In Pakistan today it has become ridiculously easy to have foolish thoughts because of semantics.

The inaccurate and grossly generalised use of language remains one of the few commonalities between the opposing parties to the ‘great ideological divide’ in Pakistan. The religious rightists use terms like liberal fascist to label anyone who disagrees with their worldview or arguments. Liberal fascist is an absurd term — an oxymoron — devoid of any meaning and used with the sole purpose of immediately discrediting the person upon whom it is directed, while not communicating any specific information. In reply, many of the liberals feel compelled to appeal to the glorious traditions of Jinnah’s Pakistan, and talk about being the silent majority to substantiate their arguments. The number of attendees at the rallies of the religious parties in Karachi and other parts of the country recently should put the usage of the silent majority catchphrase to rest. Those mourning the ‘death of liberalism’ should be intellectually honest and make their peace with the fact that liberalism was never really alive and flourishing in Pakistan. Liberals should get on with their battles without appeals to invisible, non-existent concepts.

Frederica Wilson, a Florida State Senator, sometime back sponsored a bill asking for a ban on the usage of the term ‘illegal alien’ from all official state documents, stating, “These are our colleagues, our friends, and neighbours.” According to her, the term ‘alien’ has extra-terrestrial connotations and hence it is absurd to use it in the context of immigration laws.

The media in Pakistan plays a particularly active role in this decadence. The use of the word ‘shaheed’ (martyr) is exhibit A. When an Ahmedi ‘place of worship’ (note that it is not called a mosque) is attacked and wanton murder is committed by terrorists, those killed are ‘jaanbahaq’ (dead), as opposed to the shaheeds of the Lal Masjid who are killed by state authorities to maintain law and order. Salmaan Taseer is assassinated while Khalid Khawaja is martyred. In Islamic theology, the word shaheed has a specific connotation, but the current usage of the word in our public discourse has rendered it as a means of communicating preferences. Hence the word shaheed has become devoid of any objective connotations and is only instructive to the extent of gauging the religious-political leaning of the person using it.

People who are abducted in Balochistan are said to be ‘missing persons’. Missing persons is such an innocuous term; intuitively it brings to mind thoughts of someone forgetting to take a train and not arriving to class on time, rather than being forcibly abducted at gunpoint probably with the intention of being brutally killed. It is conceded that ‘hasaas idaaray’ (sensitive organisations) may have a role in people going missing. This is really a euphemism for saying that the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) is responsible for abducting Baloch nationalist leaders and workers. The overall situation in Balochistan is being perpetuated and aggravated by a ‘foreign hand’. The Supreme Court, when deciding to meddle in the economic sphere by fixing prices and wages without any expertise or credentials in this regard, is displaying ‘judicial activism’. And expressing any opposition to judicial activism is being ‘pro-establishment’. Salmaan Taseer is assassinated because he termed the current blasphemy law a ‘kaala kanoon’ (black law), and the media decided to portray this as a condemnation of the concept itself rather than the particular penal code provision. Aafia Siddiqui is ‘qaum ki beti’ (daughter of the nation) whereas Ajmal Kasab is not a ‘qaum ka beta’ (son of the nation). There is always a fear expressed by the politicians regarding the ‘derailment of democracy’ by ‘non-democratic forces’, which, in essence, is a polite way of saying that they are terrified at the prospect of the army generals taking over. Going by political and media statements, everyone is aware of those behind the violence in Karachi, who are apparently the ‘sharpasand anaasir’ (rogue elements), and since everyone has knowledge of their identity, nobody feels the need to be specific. These are just a few examples of empty, meaningless phrases in our public discourse; there are hundreds of other such words and phrases.

Probably the single major cause of our societal failure is intellectual dishonesty, and the use of this gibberish not only manifests this dishonesty, but also reinforces and perpetuates it. Let us be clear and comprehensible about our views, preferences and prejudices. One would assume that those who are willing to murder for their cause will at least be courageous enough to articulate their views unambiguously. Similarly, one would hope that those who are ostensibly willing to be killed for their views will be audacious enough not to use vague, hollow metaphors to make their arguments.

The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore and can be reached at

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