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A man who bears false witness against his neighbor is like a club, a sword, and a sharp arrow. – Proverbs 25:18
In the realm of politics, vagueness is a virtue—or so it may seem to the politician. A verbal tightrope walk allows for plausible deniability. Faced with accounting for a statement, one need only say, “I didn’t say that. You misunderstood.” Some are masters at saying things vaguely enough that people on both sides of an issue may feel that their point of view has been supported.
Here are a number of ways people use vagueness in shaping perceptions:
Passive Voice: This device is often used to distance a guilty party from their responsibility for something. The phrase “Mistakes were made” has become a cultural “meme” mocking this practice. Yes, mistakes were made, but no one seems to have actually made them.
Content-free content: JK van Baalen states in Chaos of the Cults: “There is no salvation for apostate Baha’is according to the system.” This statement is absolutely without meaning in a Baha’i context. But the reader has no way of knowing this. The Christian reader, van Baalen’s chief audience, will interpret “salvation” and “apostate” according to his personal understanding of the words, and leap to the conclusion that Baha’i’s believe people who leave the faith are damned, which is definitely not the case.
Fact-free facts: Speaking or writing about religion with an agenda benefits much from vagueness. Ascribing feelings, beliefs, thoughts, and actions that can’t be proved or disproved to individuals or groups that don’t really exist is a tried and true way of engaging the reader or listener on an emotional level. It results in statements of “fact” that are un-falsifiable, which means simply that they can neither be proved nor disproved.
It’s an easy trap to fall into. I heard a segment of “All Things Considered” on National Public Radio in which the speaker said such things as “Science doesn’t know what to do with real food.” Science is not a person. It’s not even an institution. It’s a process for exploring the universe, so to say that it “knows” something isn’t really informative. To the fellow being interviewed, it was a throwaway line—in context, it was actually funny. But to someone with an agenda other than getting at the truth, a content-free claim like that can be a powerful tool—not of truth, but of propaganda.
Here’s a widely-used example: “Islam wants to govern the world through Shariah law!” A large number of people believe this as a statement of fact. But there is no way it can be fact. “Islam” is not a unified religious entity; it has no central authority like, say, the Catholic church does. It cannot be said to “want” anything. The myth is busted, as they say, on that basis alone. It is a straw man argument. But it is also speaking of a second entity that does not exist—there is no universal body of Shariah law any more than there is a unified Islam to want to govern by it. In fact, Shariah is open to interpretation of the various leaders of Islamic thought; and is practiced very differently in many different places.
Despite this, a significant number of people live in fear of Muslims who overtly or secretly want to govern them according to Shariah law. Thus, as Baha’u’llah has said, words become a deadly poison:
That seeker must… never seek to exalt himself above any one, must wash away from the tablet of his heart every trace of pride and vain-glory, must cling unto patience and resignation, observe silence and refrain from idle talk. For the tongue is a smoldering fire, and excess of speech a deadly poison. Material fire consumeth the body, whereas the fire of the tongue devoureth both heart and soul. The force of the former lasteth but for a time, whilst the effects of the latter endureth a century. – Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, pp. 264-265.
Criticizing others, or their beliefs, only reveals a lack of knowledge—and kindness. At the very core of all faith, the Baha’i teachings say, we all share the same essential beliefs:
…the lights of the Sun of Reality will illumine the whole world so that no strife and warfare, no battles and bloodshed remain. May fanaticism and religious bigotry be unknown, all humanity enter the bond of brotherhood, souls consort in perfect agreement, the nations of earth at last hoist the banner of truth and the religions of the world enter the divine temple of oneness, for the foundations of the heavenly religions are one reality. – Abdu’l-Baha, Foundations of World Unity, pp. 12-13.
Next: Striving to Truly Understand Religion