Updated: May 1, 2021
By Palwasha A.
Recently I’ve noticed a trend in some conversations with friends, where they seem to feel uncomfortable bringing up a controversial topic, or visibly steer clear of a conversation because we know each other’s views on a certain topic and feel they leave no room for discussion.
Australia, and much of the world, seems to be becoming more and more divided across political lines. In this atmosphere of dramatic polarisation, it can be difficult to have respectful discussion around topics that are so convoluted and multi-faceted. Cue the infamous family dinner scene, where one cousin’s liberal views clash with another family member’s conservative rhetoric and blows the evening to such heights that respect is but a blimp in the stratosphere. How many of us have approached a difficult conversation with the desire to drum it into the other person’s head that what they believe is incorrect, without being able to handle discussion or debate.
Many people are getting to the point where they’re collectively tired of the growing hatred and difference of opinion that seems insurmountable when trying to educate, and spending your emotional energy on a person who seems not to be listening. So let’s change this.
The Growing Divide
There is a weird new energy in the air where hating on people with limited understanding of a topic seems to have become the norm. This applies to both sides of the aisle and everything in between. This has been seen before but in the age of social media, there is a certain performative and self-righteous element to it. The reality is that we don’t live in a world that puts value on empathy or even on knowledge that serves a purpose outside of furthering a capitalist agenda.
So how do we actually respect people who we fundamentally disagree with? And to be clear I am not talking about people who refuse to learn, or stay spewing hatred. I also don’t mean in conversations where your rights, or those of others, are questioned. What I mean is those conversations that make you feel like the world is moving too slow and that what you’re talking about should have been researched by them in 2015. What’s the solution?
The Nasty and Very Un-Sexy Political Root Of The Issue
We’ve had it spun to us that the spreading virus of global polarisation can be boiled down to identity politics and how much more sensitive everyone has become. But as It turns out, when you dig past the bluster, one of the main reasons this change is happening is due to the rise of polarising, divisive leaders.
Right now we seem to be at a bit of a crossroads. Partisan conflict, or allegiance to political ideals, takes a very heavy toll on all of us, regardless of our attitudes to politics. In ‘Democracies Divided’, a work by the Carnegie Endowment For International Peace, polarisation often leads to the demonisation of activists and human rights defenders, which is why it can be difficult for people to open their minds to a perspective that is shunned. Even more seriously, divisions of this sort can “contribute to a spike in hate crimes and political violence”. This can be seen in polarised countries like India, Poland and the United States, which have all seen an increase in hate crimes in recent years.
Interestingly, though not surprisingly, corruption in a country’s political space also bolsters it’s polarisation. This tends to leave a country’s people disgusted with traditional parties and clears the path for populist figures to take power, people who strive to appeal to the everyday person who feels that their concerns aren’t being listened to, like they haven’t been heard in years.
The study also found that these effects pretty much don't change regardless of the country- democratic of course, we aren’t talking about dictatorships here. Also, (and this isn’t relevant to the piece I was just flabbergasted and I wanted you to know too) the 2019 study referenced that when polarisation hits a country hard, one of its effects is that it “shatters informal but crucial norms of tolerance and moderation- like conceding peacefully after electoral defeat- that keep political competition within bounds”. Wow. Sounds um, familiar. Like when an orange tyrant recently refused to let go of power and incited a riot in his own country to bring down any attempt at democracy. If the authors of the study could see them now.
The Biggest of The Baddies, The Internet
Once a deep divide emerges amongst citizens, polarisation tends to increase in the ensuing years at an alarming rate. Interestingly, governments tend not to do anything about this, despite terrible consequences, because the politicians who have incited it find that it favours them to have it grow. They are not the ones who bear the true cost. Minorities, women, the most vulnerable communities bear the brunt of polarisation, as can be seen in John Howard’s marketing fear of refugees as “being Australian”, and the devastating effects of that that we still see today.
With the rise of fake news and the content we see being more and more geared to what we already believe, we become even more firmly entrenched in the views we already hold, which drives us further into the ground. In Australia’s case, much of the time, strongly inhumane policies are tied to a country’s “national identity” so as to make them more palatable and uplift supporters as patriots rather than people aligning themselves with inhumanity. What works for our media much of the time is appealing to people’s natural instinct of fearing the other, even if they weren’t inclined to do so originally. In Australia, our divide seems to be rooted primarily along lines of ideology and ethnicity.
Our immense dependence on and interaction with the internet contributes hugely to such immense polarisation in an age where we have more access to educational resources than ever before. Something I personally didn’t know much about is the fact that the internet only gears towards you the content you want to see, which can give the illusion of a more full understanding of a concept or situation than you actually have. Many of us have seen the absolute takedown of Mark Zuckerberg by AOC regarding the way Facebook gives steam to fascist, and particularly white supremacist, groups and ideologies by gearing their content to people the platform judges to have interacted with content like that already. The most widely-used social media platform in the world does this, ladies and gentlemen.
The Demonisation of Not Knowing
A rising trend we’ve all seen in the past few years has been the absolute demolishing of people for not knowing about everything happening in the world. If you’re a part of the “woke” movement then you must know who is suffering why and when at all times.
The important thing to realise when speaking to a person “on the other side” is how pervasive and accepted the systemic ruptures in our society are. This can also often be the reason behind conversations with women (for example) who say they don’t see the need for feminism. Someone’s ignorance on a topic you believe everyone should be passionate about isn’t necessarily a moral failing on their part, but simply their being a product of the world in which they have grown. These processes can be invisible even to the people who are most vulnerable to having their lives shaped by them.
Let’s consider the example of racism. It is so systemically ingrained within our culture, in a country founded on genocide, that we are still in the stage of refusing to even change the date of our national holiday that celebrates said genocide. In this society, we all grow up as racists. Every individual must come to their own reckoning with this fact about themselves, and this may not come without a substantial moment of impact, that then must be followed by exposure to new ideas, and consistent unlearning and relearning for the rest of their lives.
This “awakening” and learning process is very much discouraged by the rebranding of educated empathy for others as “liberalism”, exacerbated by the media. It’s not surprising that so many people never get the necessary exposure they need to to start unlearning.
I myself am still so ignorant of certain issues that I should know more about. Though I am passionate about justice, that sense of justice is also skewed towards the things I’ve witnessed and experienced during my life. Though we can have empathy for every struggle, how many of us can be an effective ally for every struggle? While this is not a point to stay at, I think many of us are in this same position. Because the reality is that our society, the way we have to function in order to stay above the poverty line, is not rooted in empathy, but in upholding the structures that keep us where we are.
Very few people have the pleasure of being able to make it their full-time job to learn, to grow in understanding of the structures that oppress us and to do something substantial about it. This is something we need to be able to recognise better in our interactions with each other. The expectation that everyone can and should be at the same level in their understanding of our world is what leads very quickly to empathy burnout, or even worse, to a standstill of performative activism that distracts from the point.
So How Can We Move Forward?
The solution, on an individual level, is to understand that you are not divided from this person because of a failing on their part. You are divided because forces bigger than you, and stronger than you, have worked to make and keep this divide. To make it so that pursuing education costs you as much as the down payment on a house. To make it so that when Black Lives Matter gained momentum, arguing that statement at all was deemed acceptable. To make it so that when women come forward to report, they’re not likely to get a conviction. These systems have worked to keep us in a state of denial about our own oppression so much so that it can no longer be blamed on the individual alone for not having gone completely against the grain to do the research to find out how, especially when what you find is so dismaying.
Giving people the nuance and context they deserve is how we move past our divide and recognise the real enemy of systems that don't value kinship or empathy. We need to be able to have conversations openly about our ideas and thoughts, within respectful bounds, especially regarding the leadership of our countries and the systems that we operate within, in order to progress and combat this deep polarisation within our communities and Australia as a whole.
Edited By Mariam H.