Resisting polarities

March 10, 2023 09:08
Photo: Reuters

We live in an era of polarisation.

From radical identity politics, to racist bigotry directed towards immigrants; from chauvinistic militarism and nationalism, to unapologetic and unnuanced embracing of problematic extremities in ideologies and policy platforms. This is an age where political poles are rewarded, not punished, for their failure to comply with and make peace with reality. These are also times when those calling for moderation are often subjected to metaphorical stoning – even if not in the sense of structural silencing, then at least in the form of social ridicule and ostracisation.

Polarisation is most prevalent in politically unstable systems – systems where there have been seismic and substantial shifts and transformations to the distribution of power, without corresponding amelioration or revision to the structures that contain such power. Consider, for instance, post-revolutionary regimes that must reckon with the double whammy of both ethnonationalist fragmentation and a stifled economy. Or consider post-conflict societies where old wounds are compouned by fresh injuries and cleavages, only for these divisions to come together in supporting antagonistic and deeply bellicose rhetoric adopted by the masses.

What is oft neglected, too, is the role played by political entrepreneurs – opportunists that take pride in stoking tensions, manufacturing ‘consent’ through propagating false lies, and who build their political legacies off otherising and demonising the ‘enemy’. Carl Schmitt once theorised about the state of exception being what grants the government extraordinary powers; where he left off, Chantal Mouffe picked up in noting the perennially agonistic character of contemporary societies – constant negotiation, re-negotiation, interplay, and tensions between multiple dimensions of social stratification and division, culminating at a fundamental sense of moral impoverishment and normative disruption.

Most consumers of news do not see themselves as victims – they see themselves as truth-seekers and truth-sifters, capable of parsing and seeking truth from facts. Yet whether it be corporate-captured mainstream media, or conspiracy theorist-filled fringe media, or the increasingly balkanised spaces of social media, the ecosystem is rigged in a way that favours polarisation. Content creators are propelled by monetisation models to generate outrageous, eye-catching, or conspicuous content that captures the attention and imagination of the onlooker. Marketing firms spend most of their time and money on acquiring unique information concerning the preferences and behaviours of consumers, only to tailor their marketing (as opposed to their clients’ products!) to these pre-existing dispositions, thereby reifying and playing into the very hands of those who want to see ideological entrenchment and dogma amongst the masses at large.

In every polarised polity the underlying architecture is almost always the same. There are those who lament the fact that we are not sufficiently integrated into the mainland. Then there are those who seem to structurally repudiate anything and all there is to this very city and the way things are run. In the middle are those who resist polarities, and who find such dichotomous Manichean rhetoric bafflingly stupid. Yet these are also the very individuals who do not speak up. For, after all, what ideology or rhetorical presupposition could they advance in making the case for NOT taking sides?

This is where we need a proactive and constructive vision for opposing polarities. We must develop a discourse that not just insists upon (as a prescription) that we do not take unduly sides that are extreme, but that also provides us with the very currency and courage to not buy into selectively skewed and misrepresentative characterisations of the world we live in. What is needed here, is a firm and unyielding account of radical moderatism – radical in its ability to defy conventional orthodoxy and temptations; moderatism in its encouragement of our becoming more plural, more open-minded, and willing to inter-locute with all sides.

Resisting polarities is a mission – it is a mission that requires collective effort, energies, and creativity.

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Assistant Professor, HKU