Monday, 30 April 2012

Beating An Argument

When I was little, every time I got into a verbal argument with my older sister there would be a point when I came up with a cutting remark that I knew she wouldn’t be able to retort to, as in those days my mouth was pretty sharp despite my diminutive size.  And at this point too, my sister, who was physically far bigger than me, would glare at me while struggling for words, and finding none that was adequate, resorted to using the ultimate weapon of the inarticulate to fight me.  She would pinch my arm so hard that tears welled up in my eyes.  I refused to cry however, and bore the pain patiently until she let me go.  She had the satisfaction of hurting me.  But both of us knew who won the argument.  I equated her anger and violence as a clear sign of defeat.

Since then I’ve been a great believer that you cannot win an argument except with a better line of argument, you cannot change someone’s opinion unless you provide a more persuasive one, and you cannot force someone to share your belief unless you successfully come up with a more convincing and rational explanation.  Violence, censorship and criminalisation of what is ultimately an abstract debate is a clear sign of some sort of defeat, whether intellectual, moral or just plain rational argument.
And yet, force is often the favoured way of settling an argument, especially if you’re too lazy, thick headed or couldn’t be bothered to really think properly about what is actually at stake.  For example, it’s so much easier to beat and arrest someone (a civil servant by the name of Alexander Aan in West Sumatera) for claiming that God doesn’t exist on Facebook because atheism goes against the country’s principal philosophy of a belief in the supreme deity, than to come up with a better explanation (posted on Facebook) that God does exist.

Or better still, leave the poor fellow alone with his beliefs because an opinion is just that, an opinion.  Jails are good for those who kill hapless pedestrians because of drunk and dangerous driving for instance, and not for people with beliefs that don’t match with our own narrow view of the world.  Imagine if thousands of Indonesia’s Facebook members posted the same thing.  We would waste a lot of time, prison space and resource on these atheists without the certainty of changing their mind or even prove the existence of God. 

Authoritarian governments are inclined to curb freedom of expressions because often this type of regime relies on the people’s ignorance and fear for the legitimacy of their power.  There is nothing more frightful to dictators than having an enlightened and thinking population that ask a lot of questions and demand answers, for that would be the beginning of the end of the rule and the transfer of the power to the people. 

What is surprising however, is when in these days and age there’s still the belief that an atheist deserves to be beaten up and treated like a criminal because this is the right way to deal with an opinion or belief that is contrary to the norm.  If the authorities bother to think, they would see the absurdity of such a punishment.  Surely the point of the country’s philosophy of a belief in God is to ensure a harmonious existence and tolerance between the different religions and not necessarily to force a belief? 

After all, if you really believe in God, wouldn’t you also believe that God’s existence will not be threatened by a few unbelievers, and that actually those atheists are also God’s creation?  And if the opinions of such dissenters are viewed as dangerous, then perhaps it is time to review the quality of one’s belief or come up with a more cogent treatise.  Whichever way, God is not the losing party in this argument, so why the jail?  The way I see it, if anything, the guy has won the argument.  If God exists, surely God will be the first to defend him.

Another example of authorities trying to criminalise a point of view is happening right now in France where the French Senate is trying to pass a bill that would make it illegal to deny the Armenian genocide by the Turks.  Anyone denying the massacre that took part in the early part of the twentieth century faces fines of $57,500 and a year in prison.  In response to Turkey which, until now still makes it a criminal offense to remember the massacre,  France in effect is behaving exactly like Turkey in repressing her dissenters.   

No doubt Sarkozy has political objectives.  However, two authoritarian legislations don’t make a right, especially in the land of the free and the enlightened. It is a testament to the world’s human diversity that we end up with a plethora of diverse views and arguments.  Some of these views may be terrible, offensive, one-sided or just badly argued.  But calling the police and arresting those for having supposedly incorrect views is repressive and archaic.  An argument must be dealt with an argument and not by force.

A seven-year old little girl I knew once who had a fight with her father.  ‘I hate you, Daddy!‘ she screamed.  Her exasperated father told her in a stern voice to go to her room and skip dinner until she came to her senses.  After a while he relented and allowed her to have her food, saying something to the effect that she was not allowed to shout such things to her own father. 

At which the little girl replied calmly, ‘Yes, but I still hate you, Daddy.’

(Desi Anwar:  First Published in The Jakarta Globe)

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