Thursday, August 16, 2007

Casuistry By Definition

The Minaret of Freedom Weblog has posted a counterpoint to my post regarding the "Intifada T-Shirt" controversy, and the New York City school principal who was fired because of it.

I enjoy debate, and it's good to see we can engage in lively discourse.

The Minaret of Freedom Blog tries to counter my argument by pointing out that the word "Intifada," does, in fact also mean "a shaking off." This point is meant to prove to the reader that the principal was not wrong, that her use of the word was legitimate, and that perhaps New Yorkers are too touchy when it comes to Islam.

However, I'll give another example that parallels this argument, and by which one can perhaps see how the definition of a word can stand in stark contrast to its meaning. First:

Dictionary definition of intifada:


Etymology: Arabic intifAda, literally, the act of shaking off: UPRISING,REBELLION; specifically : an armed uprising of Palestinians against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip

Wikipedia examples of previous instances of intifada:
First Intifada, a Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule in 1987 to 1993
Second, or al-Aqsa Intifada, the violent Palestinian-Israeli conflict that began in September of 2000
1990s Intifada, an uprising in Bahrain demanding a return to democratic rule
1991 uprisings in Iraq against Saddam Hussein
Cedar Revolution or Intifada of Independence, the events in Lebanon after Rafiq Hariri's assassination
French Intifada, an ongoing conflict between French civil servants and Muslim youths
Independence Intifada, sporadic demonstrations and riots in Morocco/Western Sahara beginning in May 2005
Zemla Intifada against Spanish rule in Spanish Sahara

Wiktionary definition of intifada:
Arabic shaking, uprising, insurrection


1. an uprising, especially the Palestinian resistance to the 1987 Israeli occupation of the West Bank of the Jordan and Gaza

One can clearly see that a literal definition of the word intifada can mean to shake off, as the Principal's defenders have claimed. However, there is a similar example in Western European history of a word whose definition means one thing, but whose meaning takes on an entirely new character altogether.

an investigation or inquiry into the truth of some matter
an inquest
a questioning

Contrast the definition of the word Inquistion, with The Inquisition:
Denunciations were followed by detentions, which in some cases lasted up to two years before the trial. A defense counsel was assigned to the defendant, a member of the tribunal itself, whose role was simply to advise the defendant and to encourage him or her to speak the truth. A Notary of the Secreto meticulously wrote down the words of the accused. The archives of the Inquisition, in comparison to those of other judicial systems of the era, are striking in the completeness of their documentation. The percentage of cases where torture was used, which was as a means of getting confessions, varied. Sentences varied from fines to execution and those condemned had to participate in the ceremony of auto de fe.

Can we now objectionably see how the use of a word can be much more negative than its definition?
Because of the negative images associated with the Inquisition, the term has taken on a pejorative usage, and is often used to express disapproval.

The Spanish Inquisition, for example, included:
Censorship, Repression and Expulsion of Jews

Aside from the semantics of arguing over the definition of a word and its meaning, The Minaret of Freedom Blog is also quick to point out that:
An intifada is not necessarily violent nor is it “Islamic” per se. In fact the term is quite secular and there are Palestinian Christians, for instance who support the intifada as well as Lebanese Christians who were involved in their own (peaceful) intifada. In fact, along with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, one of the most prominent hardline and violent opponents to Arafat’s agreement to the 1993 Oslo accords was George Habash, a Greek Orthodox Christian, the founder and leader of the militant PFLP.

However, they once again miss the point. As with The Inquisition, there are undoubtedly instances of a non-violent inquisition by the police or, say, Sherlock Holmes, for example. The fact that there have been prior innocuous instances of an inquisition do not detract from the negative connotation of the world or phrase.

When one says "The Inquisition," images of Christians, Jews and Muslims being tortured, beaten and oppressed come to mind. The word's meaning and its historical context are inseparable.

Similary, when one (a New York City school principal, say) uses or approves the word "Intifada," anyone with even a modest inkling of recent history will recall waves of suicide attacks, and armed conflict.

That the Minaret of Freedom Blog has raised historical examples of non-violent intifada, the argument is moot. The word today, as it is used, has been popularized by the violent Palestinian uprisings in the middle east. To argue otherwise smacks of dishonesty.

If one cannot make the distinction between the literal definition of a word, and its historical context, then there can be only two explanations:

The person must be morally and/or socially tone deaf, in which case I pity their ignorance, or

The person has willingly applied his or her own reasoning, fraught with casuistry, to assert an agenda.

Minaret of Freed Blog called its post a "glance at the word intifida." That's all it is, a glance.

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