Its election time again. They have set the polling date on March 8th which is a Saturday. On Friday 22nd the ministry of education announced that the school holidays will start one day early to make preparations easier. Already I see my fellow Malaysians going nuts from all the ubiquitous political talk which fills every media and every opportunity for talk. Emotions, as usual, is running high particularly in areas where there is a straight fight between the ruling coalition and the particular opposition parties (Pas in Kelantan, DAP in Penang and KL et cetera). It is almost impossible to say or do anything without having your intentions interpreted within the framework of political intentions.
Malaysians get tend to get intensely emotional when they talk about politics. The question is why? I think it has to do with our beliefs and our expectations. We believe that to be able to communicate properly, we need to be able to talk in the same language; in these times however, we may use the same vocabulary, phonetics and syntax, we do not speak the same language. Our metaphors, our semantics, our discourses are different.
Then there is the question of our expectations.
We say, “I believe in the truth”, what we really mean, “What I believe is true”. We tend to think in absolutes but we forget that we have free will. We want to believe that we are good and based on this belief, which may sometimes be misguided when seen from another's point of view, we want to define what is good for others too: when they do not agree, we get upset. Also based on this belief, we believe that, “no one good would lie”, but we also tend to believe that whatever opposes our “truth” is false and a lie; consequently we believe that those who say them are not good people. Which is why we get upset when others support them or their political parties.
To convince others of the truth of our words we evoke some form of authority which we borrow from religion, statistics, science, logic, academia or where ever else we can get it. We say this is to give credence to our words but we deny consciously or subconsciously applying our interpretation of these authorities to suit our messages: we deny that we enslave that authority to our own purposes and not the other way around.
We believe what we say is relevant to the issue, the people and the times. What we really mean, sometime, is, “What you say is irrelevant”. Here again, we see the authority to define what can and cannot be brought into discussion or debate. We then get upset when the other party fail to see the relevance of our words or acknowledge our right to include or exclude contributions to the discussion.
We also believe that we act in ways that are proper and respectable but what we really mean is, “What I say / do is proper” and by extension “What you do / say is improper”. Consequently, we get upset when others label our acts as improper, “politik kedai kopi”, and other less than flattering labels.
So, what do we do to keep our heads level? The key is in how you react to what others say or do.
The first principle is non-identity: They want you to believe, “What they say is what really is”: what they don't want you to believe what they tell you is simply what they want you to hear and believe. Their only tool are words they use and the relationship between the words they use and the ideas in your head. Like logicians, we believe that we are primarily concerned with the truth but this is politics and the main concern of political campaigning is not truth but what you can be made to believe is true. So, how do they go about using words to get their ideas across?
First, there is hyponymy: situations when the meaning of one word is included in another. For example, when you say “human” concepts like man, woman, boy, girl, adult and so on are taken to be included in the meaning of the word. When we mention “cat” we often mean the domestic cat but in the meaning of the word we can also find other members of the cat family, tiger, lion, cheetah, jaguar, lynx and others. The trick is to manipulate the meanings that are associated with the particular words or terms that we use and in doing so equate people (usually your opponents) with concepts with which they do not want to be associated.
Next we have manipulation of incompatibility of concepts and words. One common kind is antonymy: cases where the meaning of one word / concept if not compatible with another. The incompatibility can be,
Complementary – either / or situations where one necessarily excludes the other: hot / cold, up / down, good / evil, telling the truth / telling lies.
Gradable – concepts that exclude one another but are related by definition or domain; hot / warm / cold, novice / learning / experienced / seasoned.
Relational – concepts that exclude the other because they belong to different domains: words that are not related. This is mostly used to indicate the other person does not know what they are talking about.
There are other relationships used but they are usually harder to notice. Among them are,
Homonymy – same name / word different meanings.
Polysemy – one word many meanings
Generality -one word, many unrelated meanings: different meaning in different domains.
The second principle is the principle of Non-allness: situations where they want you to believe, “what I say is all there is to be said about the subject” and they do not want you to remember that there are always at least two sides to the story. This tool is often used with a great deal of emotive language because emotion tends to force the mind to work with that it has been given and not look for more items to work with. Common linguistic tools used here are as follows,
entailment – truth of one sentence implies the truth of other sentences they use. To achieve this, politicians tend to first try to get you hooked. The bait is authority. They evoke some form of authority which is easily acceptable. Once you find the initial argument palatable, they begin to steer the argument in any direction they want with you stringing along on the hook on their line.
Contradiction – the truth of one sentence implies falseness of the second and then the others. To do this our politicians begin the same way as the above: they get you hooked first. Once you are hooked, they will then manipulate the argument of their opponent to show how they contradict the “truth” that you have agreed to and hence are necessarily false.
These two tools sound incredibly simple but they are exceedingly effective. From personal experience, remember observing how some politicians can work the crowd to a frenzy using only these two simple devices. Don't just take my word for it, watch videos of speeches by Hitler, Sukarno, Martin Luther King and Castro, and you'll find them using these devices to achieve impressive results, in some cases they drove nations to war.
The final principle is the principle of self-reflexivity: the things they say tell you more about who they are and what they stand for rather than the people or things they are talking about. Here again you would need to observe the politicians using the tools I mentioned above, once you realize that they meaning and the message they are constructing are results of the choices they make you will begin to see the thinking that drive them to make those choices.
The final question is, who do I believe? What party do I vote for? I cannot answer these questions for you. The burden of choice is yours to bear. All I can show you here is how they try to manipulate you, the things you hear, the things you believe and ultimately the things you do: the box in which you mark your X.