A long hard look in the mirror: the value of confronting yourself
By Tom Wells
Taking the word literally, 2016 has been a ‘revolutionary’ year. A great and sudden shift has occurred within the Western World. I’m referring of course to the obvious rise of right-wing populism that emerged in the recent Brexit vote, as well as the American elections, and is picking up increasing momentum in many other areas of the Western world.
As someone who identifies as ‘left of centre’, up until recently it has been easy to cruise through my social spaces while blowing the trumpet of my own value system, with little care or need for self-reflection. Wherever I looked, I could find people to agree with me. Up until the great political earthquakes of 2016, I can remember almost exclusively being exposed and exposing myself to media that confirmed my worldview and the agendas that go with it. It’s not to say that I ever believed that the whole world agreed with me, but to me it seemed obvious that anything opposing my progressive, liberal world was something to silently scoff at. It was certainly not an opinion I expected many to be vocal about..and those that were vocal were most likely bigots or just simply idiots.
It is by this memory that I am confronted.
Clearing the fog from my eyes on the dawn of 2017, I have awoken in a world where information that opposes my values is just as readily available as my own, in spite of the fact that I have not been actively seeking it out. It becomes apparent that the left-wing agenda is no longer the safe, uncontroversial stance for media outlets and corporations alike. Whereas before we saw mainstream acceptance of liberal stances - with huge multinationals engaging in marketing schemes that support progressive movements such as gay pride - this has become an increasingly risky marketing default. I’m not claiming that right-wing or even far-right agendas have not been represented in the media until recently. However, now in the mainstream media, the lines between liberal and conservative positions are becoming increasingly blurred. Instead, hard-right and nationalistic positions have become far less niche.
It is certainly not time to abandon our principles, especially now that trends of racial and social tension are only deepening. But the smokescreen resulting from political polarization that blinded us over the course of 2016 shows no signs of dissipating. We in “The West” are becoming bipolar: many are moving away from the stable moderation and opportunity for discussion that the political centre provides. But with that comes a silver lining. It seems to me to be a bit far fetched that society has suddenly become populated by a majority of uncompromising extremists - be they the ‘racist xenophobes’ of the right or the ‘snobbish and manipulative metropolitan elites’ of the left. My suspicion is that people have sought out the safe haven of these simplified extremes in moments of personal and political desperation.
One thing I’ve noticed in the wake of the rising right is that the establishment of the new hard-right is in fact a mish-mash of conflicting political opinions that have been funneled to some sort of cathartic bandwagon as this is now the path of popular voice and power. This has the very dangerous effect of watering down the nuances and complexities of our communities and each individual residing within them.
If in reading this so far you feel as hopeless as I do writing it, fear not! There is hope and there is another way. As clichéd as it may sound, I’ve arrived at the conclusion that the only answer is to listen, consider and respect others.
Faced with the world as it is today we must pluralize ourselves and adopt an attitude that is beyond left and right, beyond Democrat or Republican, beyond Leave or Remain. The only way we can all emerge from our political caves is if we stop pigeonholing anybody who does not explicitly agree with us. We are not fighting our political counterparts; we are fighting division itself. If we do not create platforms for communication and debate as a society, where most if not all views are given a fair chance, we will only divide further.
In doing this we can minimize the footholds given to opportunists and populists who profit from our chaos, and who seek to represent no one and nothing but their own personal and party-political ends.
Moving forward, our best hope is if we all become open to more than a left/right (tunnel) vision of the people around us. For too long, I have taken my own values as a given, and it is now more relevant than ever to try to combat that with a more respectful and a more open-minded outlook to those who disagree with us.
In this, the enemy is not only our own polarization. We’re also weakening the ability of our society to keep the power of its political elite under control. Simply put: the more polarized we are, the more unchecked freedom we allow to those who seek to exploit it.
In the end, we all lose out.
A debate is and can only ever be a two-way street, so, in the spirit of this, here is a new mantra for myself in 2017:
I will not automatically assume
someone’s a racist because they dislike immigration
I will debate more and argue less
I will read more than just the liberal media
I will do more and whine less
I will quit smoking (this one’s off topic, but fuck it, it’s bad for me)
Maybe this simple resolution is enough to do my part in contributing to a conversation that doesn’t make people want to scurry into the dark corners of the hard left and right, out of fear that their way of life is being threatened. For all of us who consider ourselves “moderate”, let this be our wake up call.