Choice of words tells much about dialogue

I’m convinced by Zahreen Ghaznavi and Altaf Saadi’s recent op-ed column (“Students should fight stereotyping of Muslims,” 2/23). I agreed with their points: Muslims are often inaccurately stereotyped, knowledge of Islamic history is painfully lacking, and interfaith dialogue is critical in building a mutually supportive community. They challenge Yalies to “challenge their assumptions.” I now challenge theirs because theirs are mine, and any shortcomings I find will apply as much to me as to them.

The major explicit assumption Ghaznavi and Saadi make is that Muslim Americans are every bit as American as any other American, such as Rep. Virgil Goode, R-Va. I suppose that what they mean to say is that regardless of factors such as race or religion, all Americans have an equal voice and deserve equal rights and respect; that no one’s views will be ignored because of political affiliation, gender or religion; and things of that nature.

The authors also have implicit assumptions, though. In talking about reactions to Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., the first Muslim elected to Congress, they note ones such as Goode’s as “a flood of shrill denunciations and criticisms.” For the sake of brevity, that there was a “flood” of “denunciations” and “criticisms” is an objective fact, but the word “shrill” carries a value judgment. Praise for the candidate you like is never “shrill.” Your own denunciations and criticisms are never “shrill.” The annoying girl in your section has “shrill” laughter. People who don’t know the bounds of good taste are “shrill.” People who are wrong or undesirable in some way are “shrill.”

To say something is “shrill” is to beg the question of the standards to which something is judged. If we ask Goode whether his remarks were “shrill,” I’m sure he would disagree. He may use words like “sober,” “timely” or “urgent.” The difference in Goode and those who would call him “shrill” is one of pre-existing standards or tastes that are used in judging the appropriateness of utterances. It is, on a fundamental level, a matter of opinion.

But at the same time, it is not just a matter of opinion. It’s a matter of each individual’s assigning meaning to the world around him. For Ghaznavi and Saadi, it is objective fact that the criticisms of Goode and others are “shrill.” They could even find conclusive “evidence” to support their claims, just like Goode could find conclusive “evidence” that they are not “shrill,” but instead profound. But in order to find such evidence, one must to assume a definition for “shrill” which can’t be objectively proven (just as in the scientific method: We can’t scientifically prove the method to be sound because it is what we use to prove other things as scientifically true). It is a case of two different non-provable assumptions over what the word “shrill” means, one from Ghaznavi and Saadi, the other from Goode. The same analysis holds true for their more dangerous word “ignorance.” The same analysis would hold for the word “good,” which is what causes some to celebrate a Muslim’s election to Congress while others respond with “shrill denunciations.”

Differences in opinion might be our most American freedom. We can each believe what we want, and each opinion is as valid as any other. The problem comes in whenever someone (Ghaznavi and Saadi) claims that his views are more important than others’ are. After all, Goode’s comments (and thus his views) are “shrill” and “imbued with ignorance.” In going so far as to call those views “a complete disregard for our Founding Fathers’ convictions and values,” Ghaznavi and Saadi assume that only their understanding of American history and the “Founding Fathers’ convictions and values” are correct. It seems that rather than being “just as American” as Goode, they are actually more American. After all, their understanding of American values counts more than Goode’s “shrill” and “ignorant” understanding of them. In labeling them as such, Ghaznavi and Saadi attempt to make sure that Goode’s (and similar) views have no force when it comes to making important decisions (such as who gets to lead the country).

The dialogue they call for, then, is not honest, but fixed. Ideas that perceive Muslims negatively are never allowed in the dialogue. If they are allowed, it is only on the condition that they be abandoned in a short while for more civilized ones. These less “shrill” ideas happen to be in line with the (only) correct interpretation of the Founding Fathers’ values (not coincidently, the interpretation that belongs to Ghaznavi and Saadi).

Ghaznavi’s and Saadi’s strategy, then, is to stigmatize ideas that are mutually exclusive with theirs. The way to do that is to call others’ ideas “shrill” and “imbued with ignorance” while theirs are “American.” The dialogue they seek is rigged; its outcome, viewing the Muslim population the same way Ghaznavi and Saadi view it, is predetermined. The thing that worries me most is that I have no problem with any of this.

Michael Wayne Harris is a sophomore in Branford College.

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