Aslam's Writing Lab

Think, read, write, create

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It is possible that you have read or heard the term “critical thinker.” Some of you may know what it means and some may not. Many young people think being a critical thinker is having the ability to think critically.

But, what does it exactly mean to think critically? John Cotton and Eve Litt offer a concise and straightforward definition in their online course English for Journalism. To be a critical thinker, they say, is to have two qualities: being curious and skeptical. I elaborate them further below.

Curious: It means to be eager to know or learn something. This curiosity can be about a range of issues such as society, politics, science, religion, yourself, etc. Curious people have questions about problems that concern them or have an impact on the larger world in any way. They read, think and try to find accurate answers to their queries. Those who are not curious, are not bothered by issues, and they can’t care less to read a book or a newspaper article. Non-curious people are either lazy, disappointed at the world and extremely busy in earning bread and butter or contended with their “knowledge” of the world.

Skeptical: For a critical thinker, it is not enough to be only curious. He or she has to be skeptical, too. Skeptical comes from skepticism or scepticism, a branch of philosophy that denies the possibility of certain knowledge, and even rational beliefs in some sphere. It means to have doubts and reservations and to be not easily convinced. Being doubtful means verifying the source and objectivity of information or an idea. While reading a report or a news story, for instance, skeptical people look at its originality, completeness, transparency and fairness. They also confirm the authority of a source.

Being curious and skeptical sounds simple but it is not. It requires time, energy, genuine care and consideration about our everyday thought. But, it is worth spending time on learning and analyzing because our views have an impact on people in our neighborhoods and even in countries on other continents.

 

Aslam Kakar

 

 

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Two days ago, a friend in a party asked: “What is your statement?” She meant what my philosophy about life and the world is. I said, “Frankly, I don’t think I have a fixed view (or a statement) of the world.” She said, “You quote all these books, but don’t claim any opinion. That is strange.”

I said, “Yes, I read a lot, and I don’t see a problem in quoting writers I trust, or better, trusted by many in intelligentia. Besides, I don’t quote for the sake of it. I use books as reference points because they reflect my views of the world in some ways.” She said, “But, what is your view(s).”

She would not let go of putting me up against the wall. I said, “Look, the nature of the world is too complex to allow me to make a singular statement. Things change so rapidly and so do my thoughts on discovering new possibilities. So, I don’t know what my statement is.”

Although I did not know the answer, it was, to be honest, a great question. I kept pondering as our conversation progressed. Finally, I said, “My philosophy is humanism or secular humanism. I stand for reason and science over myths and against oppression and injustice.” She seemed slightly convinced, but I was not satisfied with my answer because I doubted it was my statement. It did not describe how I see the world.

I thought my statement is the people at the gathering: the Vietnamese, Indians, Lebanese, Chileans, Pakistani (myself), Americans, Africans and African Americans. My statement is the dark night and the starless sky above. My statement is the cigar, beer and wine on the table. My statement is the fire next to the table.

My statement is the floating river and the cool breeze on the bridge on Raritan Avenue. My statement is to walk and lose myself to the silence of the streets in the dark. My statement is to doubt, and question because what I see does not exist in reality. And my statement is that I am lost in the world and don’t have a statement.

Aslam Kakar

 

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Music sets me on fire while I walk. I long for nothing but some time with myself. Alone. On the streets of the town. Under the trees with no one in sight. In the beauty of the darkness and silence. All I sense is thoughts and emotions. Happiness. Sadness. Helplessness. Nothingness. Aloneness. I see white and pink flowers in the street light. I feel their smell. Summer just started, but I thought flowers blossom in the Spring. Or maybe it is different in this country. But I like it anyways. I feel good.

But who am I? How did I end up in this town? Why walk in the dark? Why not do something else? Like go and sit in a coffee shop and read a book or write, and drink a cup of coffee. No, I should stop because I won’t be able to sleep. I have to wake up early tomorrow. And I just came home from the shop. I thought I should go for a walk.

Why am I afraid? What is fear? Why I can not rid of it. I do not know. I think I understand it but can not completely control it. It disappears and reappears like the hair on my face. I have to cut it if I don’t want it. Most of life has been like this. Can I be a great writer? Maybe, if I work hard. I think I can be. Think about where I started. It is possible, but I need to work hard and read a lot. No one can be a writer without writing. Everyone goes through the pain. All human beings have the potential to write, and so have I. Even if I can’t be a great writer, I am going to fucking keep writing. I just need to.

What will happen after Ph.D.? Will I get a full-time job as a professor? Will I be able to afford to live in a decent house? My room is not too bad, but a better place would be beautiful. Thank God I am not on the street because I could be if I do not work hard. Life is hard, man. Oh no! I am going to die too one day. What do I want to do before death? I want to write at least one book about my life. My village, the mountains, school and childhood friends. And my mother.

That house is so big and beautiful. Look at the cat in the window. How can these people afford such big homes? I heard they have to pay thousands of dollars in taxes. My yearly earnings are barely enough to pay rent and buy food. These thoughts about death, health and rent are scary. I should think about something sweet. Yeah, I should. But, why some people have excellent jobs and others, equally talented people, have to struggle. When, mostly, it is just a difference between nineteen and twenty, as people back home aptly put.

Life is fucking cruel and unfair. Some people have riches just because they have them. Others don’t have them just because they don’t. They are fucking miserable and all they get is more misery. Yes, I understand hard work pays, but for some, it doesn’t, no matter what. But do I care about riches? Do I want to be rich? I do not think so. I just want to have enough to live a decent life. I don’t want to end up on the street or die of a disease because I can’t afford a doctor. This is so scary.

It is going to be OK. Think about something beautiful and positive. I am calm, kind, confident and fearless, although fear is fucking existential. I listen to people. I try to understand where they come from. I always think about increasing my knowledge of the world. I read a lot. Sometimes, I read three to four different books on the same day. It is never enough though. But it is good. It makes me stronger but kinder. All I need is a calm head full of ideas.

I think this walk is enough and I should return home to take a shower and eat. Which book should I read tonight though? Sapiens by Hariri or reread Justice by Sandel? I think I should continue with Hariri. His story of the empires is interesting.

I am home from the thirty minutes’ walk. This is what I recall from the many random thoughts.

Aslam Kakar

 

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Most humans are banal in their everyday thinking. They lack originality and complexity required to understand the world.

The world is a big word. Let us just say, the everyday social and political issues.

For most of them, coming out of their rigid and singular frames is a process, and a difficult one indeed.

They do not appreciate when told that their ideas are base: based on passion and emotion rather than reason and experience, as the famous French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre describes in Anti-Semite and Jew.

Theorists Kay Whitlock and Michael Bronski define frame as a “conceptual path shaping how people understand an issue and what ought to be done about it.”

Psychologists say it is primordial for humans to crave certainty or singular articulations. It is convenient for them to see the world into rigid categories and understand it as such.

Geography, race, ethnicity, religion and politics further embolden these categories. Hence, what are fundamentally social constructions become social realities.

For the individual to deconstruct and reconstruct these realities, alternative imaginations are needed.

The alternative imaginations come from a number of channels. Social and cultural interactions are one.

The most attainable and instrumental way to challenge the all too common perceptual rigidity is reading and critical thinking.

Most people have access to books in the world today. Some more so than others. But generally, books are available to many.

Reading has for good reasons changed my worldview. As a voracious reader and a thinking freak, I am still mazed but the experience is nonetheless liberating.

I feel confused and challenged but belonged to the larger world without boundaries.

I hope this post inspires you to do your bit in adding more meaning and clarity to the world ridden with tensions.

Defusing tensions are possible when we all disrupt our biased frames and connect with others through authenticity, empathy and dispassionate understanding.

 

Aslam Kakar      

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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It has been three weeks since the last post I wrote. I have never been busier in school and work.

Although I am still in the middle of a heavy workload, I guess I needed a break for this blog which I started with a lot of passion.

Let me use this opportunity and share my writing journey with you, very briefly. I am not a born writer. I am not even someone who had the privilege to know about writing.

I learned how to write on my own after years, at least a decade, of hard work.

Ten years ago, when I was twenty, I could hardly write a paragraph with meaning and coherence.

When I was fifteen, I hardly knew if there was such a thing as being or becoming a writer. All I knew were written words in books and newspapers, and that I had to complete my homework.

When I was younger than fifteen, forget it. Because I spent my teens in a small village in Pakistan, I did not have access to books and library.

My early twenties were when I began to feel interested in writing, but I still struggled with the basics. Grammar, clarity of ideas and sentence construction bothered me.

At the end of undergraduate studies in my mid-twenties, I commanded the basics of writing. Now I could write to convey my ideas but still not in the way I desired. My poor sentence structure, lack of vocabulary and lack of knowledge about writing disappointed me every time I sat to write.

Some younger college students in Lahore were better writers. In fact, I used to read their essays in the monthly publication again and again. They inspired me to write more and more.

The real progress in my writing has taken place in the past five years. I have read like never before. Books on writing, psychology, philosophy, politics and on life, in general, have helped me form my opinions.

During these years, I have been committed to writing. Other writers and bloggers have inspired me to write my own stories. I have keenly observed how they write, and how I can incorporate their style and choice of words in my writing.

I have learned that to be a writer is to build and improve little by little, every day. It takes time and belief in yourself. The more you write, the better you get at it. There is no magic wand to become a finer writer, as I know it.

 

Aslam Kakar   

 

 

 

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Let’s be honest. It is not easy to speak to a crowd. To put it another way, it is not comfortable to talk confidently to an audience.

I was afraid myself for quite some time. I would deliver but with less confidence and clarity. I guess my culture and the education system were both discouraging in this regard.

But, over the course of my career as a student and as a teacher, I do not have that fear anymore. Although I have improved quite a bit, there are always new ways to seek to how to become the best speaker.

You may have your own strategies. Here are some of the ways that helped me overcome my fear.

#1. Acknowledge that you have a fear problem. If you do not recognize it, you are not going to look for help to improve. Do not feel ashamed. Brené Brown in her book Daring Greatly writes, “Shame derives its power from being unspeakable.” Have courage. According to Brown, “Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.”

#2. Always be prepared for the talk. If you do not prepare, do not expect the best from yourself. The human mind does not process new information in an eloquent and organized manner. You have to work on it and prepare it many times before you go up the stage to deliver. Things as familiar as your own life story are difficult to talk about if you have no clue what and how you are going to say it.

#3. Think yourself as an authority when you present. It is true, mostly. When you deliver a talk, keep in mind that you know— let’s pick a random number—more than 95 percent than the rest of the participants and the audience on that particular topic. Sometimes, including your professor and panelists and other speakers. So, do not forget that you are the authority—only if you do the work, of course—on that subject. This should give you confidence.

#4. Feel like you are talking to one person at a time. You would think it would be easier if you only had to speak to a person because you are more confident and eloquent. You feel overwhelmed when more heads show up in the room. But, the good news is that you are actually talking to one person at a time even though they appear to be more than one.

If you think about people in the room, they each listen to you individually. Their brains are not connected to what I call a “super-structure brain” that knows everything about you and what you are saying. So, you are still talking to the one person that you wish to. And that one person has their own possible worries, limitations of knowledge and a zillion other thoughts going on in their head. So, do not panic.

#5. Speak slowly when you feel overwhelmed. Do not rush your words. We tend to have more control over our language and body when take the time to relax.

#6. Know that you have no evidence of being judged. At public speaking events, most people are afraid of being judged by the audience. But that is not true because you have no evidence of it. So basing your knowledge of how people would react to you on assumptions is not useful. When you have this perspective, you should feel more confident.

#7. Take a breathing exercises class. If you have problems with breathing while speaking, take a course with a singer or a trained public speaking practitioner. They will teach you how to use your lungs, nose, etc. to create capacity for speaking and produce quality sound, appropriate intonation, etc.

#8. Take a genuine interest in the topic. If you are not interested in the idea(s) you are presenting, it is difficult to bring passion and confidence to the presentation.

I hope this helps break your fear. I would like to know your ideas on the topic in the comments section.

Have a wonderful weekend.

 

Aslam Kakar

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An argument is not making a loud and persistent noise to silence to convince others. Neither is it speaking faster or overtalking the other to “win” a point.

Argument can simply be defined as “a connected series of statements intended to establish a definite proposition.”

Stanley Fish in his book Winning Arguments says, 

  • “One general thing that can properly be said about argument is that it is essentially the art of persuasion, the art of trying to move someone from an adherence to position A—which might be political, economic, domestic, aesthetic, military, theological, whatever—to an embracing of position B” (Fish 2016, 7).

Below are some more impressive quotes about argument from Fish’s book:

  • “…Failure, at least as a possibility, is a condition of argument, for argument is, as Aristotle and everyone after him has said, the realm of the probable, the medium of exchange we engage in when the field of enquiry is structured by doubt and the absolute authority of God’s word or a mode of perfect calculation is not available. (If it were available, doubt would soon be dispelled, and there would be no reason to argue). In the absence of such an authority, the response to doubt is to argue, to put forward theses and proofs in the hope the matter can be clarified to the satisfaction of at least a majority of those in the relevant audience” (Fish 2016, 11-12).
  • “Basically, argument is the medium we swim in, whether we want to or not. Argument, the clash of opposing views, is unavoidable because the state of agreement that would render argument unnecessary—a universal agreement brought about by facts so clear that no rational being could deny them—is not something we mortals can ever achieve. Each of us occupies a partial, time-bound perspective and none of us has access to the God’s-eye view from which the big picture might be seen at a glance. Therefore, any statement any of us makes is an argument because, as an assertion that proceeds from an angle, it can always be, and almost always will be, challenged by those whose vision is also angled, but differently so. Conflict, not agreement, is the default condition of mortality” (Fish 2016, 2).
  • Argument comes before truth or knowledge. “What this means is that knowledge and truth rather than presiding over the field of argument are what emerge in the course of argument; and because it is argument and not Reality with a capital R that produces them, truth and knowledge are always in the process of being renegotiated. There is no end, no stopping point, to this process and there is no end to—no resolution of—of argument” (Fish 2016, 2-3).
  • “In a world bereft of transcendence, argument can not achieve certainty; it can only achieve persuasion (and may not do even that), a resolution of the issue that lasts only until a more powerful act of persuasion supplants it” (Fish 2016, 12).
  • “Argument could produce certainty only if we lived in a world where a settled dispute stays settled because its resolution has been accomplished by a measure everyone accepts and accepts permanently” (Fish 2016, 13).
  • “… Argument is everywhere, argument is unavoidable, argument is interminable, argument is all we have” (Fish 2016, 3).
  • “The fact that the skill of argument is neither an unalloyed good thing nor a diabolically inspired bad thing, but is sometimes one, sometimes the other, sometimes both, has led the friends of argument to argue for argument’s “indifferent” status: it is not good or bad in itself, but can be either good or bad depending on the circumstances and the spirit in which it is deployed. Aristotle acknowledges that bad men may abuse it, but, after all, he observes that “is a charge which may be made in common against all good things”” (Fish 2016, 44).
  • “Devising a method for ensuring that the good kind of persuasion is not mistaken for or overwhelmed by the bad kind has been a project of rhetorical theorists from the beginning. Aristotle’s taxonomy of the components of persuasion at once pinpoints the danger and suggests a way of neutralizing it. Proofs in discourse can, he said, be of three kinds: (1) logos, roughly the rational force of one’s arguments in and of themselves; (2) ethos, the good character the speaker projects—you should believe me because of the kind of person I say I am; and (3) pathos, an appeal to the emotions and prejudices the speaker knows his audience to have—you should believe me because I speak to fears and desires you already feel and to values you already hold” (Fish 2016, 46-47).
  • “Of the three, logos is thought to be the most legitimate because it is the least tricked-up and angled, and it would be better, says Aristotle, if we could “fight our case with no help beyond the bare facts”” (Fish 2016, 47).

Philosophers, scientists and theologians have argued for millennia for or against the existence of God, religious “truths” and countless other topics. Fish’s book is a wonderful read if you are interested in understanding what an argument is and how to make one.

 

Aslam Kakar

 

 

 

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