Graphic by Emily Wang/The Gazelle

Identity and ideology intertwined in destructive discourse

Discourse is crushed when ideas begin to intertwine with personhood. As soon as people see themselves as individuals who are defined by their beliefs, ...

Mar 1, 2014

Graphic by Emily Wang/The Gazelle
Discourse is crushed when ideas begin to intertwine with personhood. As soon as people see themselves as individuals who are defined by their beliefs, any discourse on any ideology is seen as an attack on an individual rather than a discussion of ideas. This equating of ideas and people is a way to control others, to make them believe that they are mere ideas and nothing more.
Nationalism is a good example. The First World War influenced nationalism, and by the the next, it was beginning to pick up steam. In our world today, nationalism is probably the single most significant force in defining global politics. But nationalism and loyalty to a certain nation are ideologies — though very rarely do people see it as such. Nation and nationality have been misconstrued as the same thing, and any attack on any nation is seen to be an attack on its people rather that the nation or the idea of the nation. Hence, popular rhetoric in most countries is dominated by ideas of leading the nation and opposing any force that seeks to demean it.
When people speak out, they are labeled as deviants, corrupters and, laughably, traitors.  Reformists, especially when it comes to nationalistic countries, face an uphill battle. They have to deal with the challenge of reforming society while trying to convince everyone that they are, indeed, insiders. For instance, it is too easy for me to be an outsider in Pakistan when I criticize some of the things Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, said or did. But I do it because I want to see reform and change, not because I seek to destroy or hurt my own country or its image.
Religion is a fundamental part of this conundrum because it is so personal. How do you have a discourse on religion without it devolving into personal attacks? It is difficult, and I sympathize with every religious person that sees their religion being hijacked by fringes that take religious teachings and run them into the ground. I sympathize because it is too easy to mistake ideas for people, simply because that’s how we’ve chosen to think about the two.
The constant reminders to the world that Islam is a religion of peace and that it cannot be judged by the actions of a few arise because of this interconnectedness of ideas and personhood. Islam is an idea, whereas a Muslim is a person who has embraced this idea. But Islam and being a Muslim are so inherently connected that it is difficult to see the distinction between the two. This explains why the Muslim world responds in a trademark knee-jerk fashion when it feels undermined and demeaned: because Muslims see Islam as their identity, rather than a belief over and above their personality or character.
But the onus to understand this difference lies not on those who bring the counterarguments to nationalism or Islam or Christianity, but rather the nationalist, the Muslim and the Christian. We cannot embrace ideas of cosmopolitanism, cultural understanding and tolerance until and unless we understand that ideas are up for criticism in the public sphere. If a person is attacked, then that is wrong because an individual has the right to be protected from public scrutiny. An idea, however, exists exactly because it belongs in the imagination of many, and hence it should be up for discussion freely and openly.
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