Tag Archives: Politics

Tribalism and the tone of current political debate

It’s commonly accepted that US politics has been polarised for quite a while. People openly identify themselves as Republicans or Democrats; most people tend to associate with those who share their political opinions; media outlets appear to be divided along partisan lines so that people can catch up with what is going on in the world from a perspective that already aligns with their own.

And so it seems that the temptation to disagree with someone simply because they belong to the other side, or to support someone simply because they belong to your side, is becoming harder and harder to avoid.

Using words like ‘left’ or ‘right’, ‘conservative’ or ‘progressive’, as the sole basis for dismissing another person’s point of view is essentially saying that you disagree with them because they are on the other side to you. That you don’t even need to listen or take into account their perspective because you have already decided that it is opposed to where you stand. That the world can be neatly divided into two opposite and opposing perspectives, one of which is completely right and one of which is completely wrong.

It’s tribalism.

And it’s often marked not by the language of debate, but by the language of war.

The end result of this, I fear, is what we’ve been seeing more and more in the lead up to this year’s presidential election. It is particularly exemplified in the farcical (but not funny) situation where we see people attempting to defend the behaviour and views of their political party’s candidate no matter how far he strays from what they have previously stated to be their core values. It doesn’t seem to matter how terrible he acts or sounds, the fact that he is on their ‘side’ overrides everything else. From the outside looking in, it’s almost impossible to understand.

Obviously there is much more I could say about the trainwreck that is Trump v Clinton, but for now I want to confine myself to this one idea and the question I have about its impact going forward from here. What will the fact that this tribalism and deep division between two sides, with little room for nuance between them, is being played out in such a public and global way mean for our future public interactions?

What is the pattern being set for how civic debate is to be conducted?

While here in Australia it is still quite rare for the average person to identify themselves day to day by which political party they vote for, the same kind of tribalistic language does seem to be creeping in. I’m certainly seeing words like ‘leftist’ and ‘right-wing’ increasingly used to dismiss an opinion in place of reasoned responses to coherent and valid points of discussion. And these kinds of words are almost always used in an attempt to shut the debate down. To dismiss the other point of view for the sole reason that it is perceived to be the ‘other’ point of view.

It bothers me greatly and to be honest it generally makes me want to disengage. We are talking about the exchange of ideas in a free society, people putting forward their views on what they genuinely believe it best for all of us. But as soon as we start using the language of warfare and tribalism, when we put one another into two simple boxes and stop listening to those who are not in the same box as us, then it seems to me that we have all lost.

How can we find ways to move beyond the simplistic categories of ‘left’ and ‘right’, ‘us’ and ‘them’?

How can we recognise that good ideas can come from both sides of the political aisle, and that when we listen to one another we might even find middle ground? How can we change the tone from one of war to one of genuine engagement, accepting that we can all learn something from one another, even from those with whom we disagree, if we will really take time to listen?

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No Room for Nuance

Recently a colleague commented to me (in person) about something I’d said in one of my blog posts. What I had written was a bit of a throwaway line, and while it wasn’t inaccurate, his point was that it needed greater nuance. I agreed, and mentioned that I am more than happy for those kind of things to be pointed out in comments – I love getting responses and differing ideas to what I share! But I take his point that in this format it can be very difficult to offer a nuanced perspective without being seen as disagreeing with or undermining the wider point.

One of the challenges with blogging is keeping posts short and readable. What gets sacrificed is the ability to provide nuance, details, explanations, caveats. Obviously this is even more so with platforms like facebook or twitter – it’s very hard to leave room for nuance in 140 characters!

When what is written on a blog or tweet is seen as a thought starter or a distillation of key ideas, and there is space to reply, comment, question and interact, it’s a great format. The problem as I see it arises when ideas expressed in these forms are taken as full and final statements, or when we assume that what someone has said is the only thing they think about a topic, or that they are not open to further discussion, or that new information would not change their perspective.

What really bothers me, however, is that this inability to leave room for nuance seems to be taking over in our national political climate. We demand full and final answers from our leaders, but we demand them in catchy sound-bites. In response we get slogans instead of policies, and leaders who are trying to govern by living up to those slogans.

Don’t we want the leaders of our nation to be people of nuance? People who change their mind when they receive new information and evidence, people who understand complexity and varying perspectives? People who grow and develop in their thinking and practice?

When our national political debate is reduced to un-nuanced, simplistic slogans, I think we all suffer. I am reminded of a quote from my favourite fictional politician,  given in the context of a political debate where people are looking for a “ten word answer” which can form the headline or sound-bite for the next news cycle.

“Every once in a while, every once in a while, there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts. Other than that, there aren’t very many un-nuanced moments in leading a country that’s way too big for ten words.”

President Josiah Bartlet, “Game On,” The West Wing

Photo by Marcia Reed NBC, via The West Wing Continuity Guide (Unofficial)
Photo by Marcia Reed, NBC, via The West Wing Continuity Guide (Unofficial)

What do you think? How can we make room for nuance, whether on social media or in political discourse?

Is Australia guilty of telling a single story about refugees?

If you haven’t already seen it, this TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is well worth 19 minutes of your time. She talks about the dangerous power of a single story. The way we too often assume that people who are different from us can be defined and summarised by one story, whereas our own culture is allowed the complexity and contradictions of multiple perspectives. The effect of doing this is to emphasize the thing we see as different and to minimise our shared humanity.

Her message is powerful and resonates for a number of reasons. I was challenged and intrigued by the way she talks about stories, and how we can make a story an entirely different story by starting it with “secondly.” In other words, the point at which we choose to begin telling someone’s story will completely shape how we hear and understand it.

The comment that really resonated with me today, however, is this one:

Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.”

Why did this hit me so strongly? I think it is because I am afraid that this is what I see happening around me.

Australians have started to tell the story of people who come to our shores seeking refuge in a particular way. We define their whole story by that one action. We are starting their story with a “secondly.” Our government has even pronounced on what language is and isn’t acceptable to describe these people. We are being shown them as one thing, and only one thing, over and over again.

When we define people as only one thing, and a thing that we think we are not, it becomes very easy to see them as “other,” and to dismiss the rest of their stories. We end up dehumanising them. I have observed it in the way different tribal groups relate to one another in parts of Africa. I see it in the way the early Jewish church struggled to accept Gentiles in the New Testament. I’m even noticing it in the way young men speak about women online. And I hear it every day in the rhetoric and debate that surrounds the “issue” of asylum seekers in Australia today.

At the political level, it can feel like this battle has already been lost. Many seem quite comfortable accepting the single story we have been told.

At the personal level, I’m grateful for those who continue to listen to the myriad of different stories from those who make up the Australian community in all its diversity. If you’re looking for a good place to start, check out www.welcometoaustralia.org.au and maybe take the time to listen to just one of the many stories there.

I would hate to think that my life could be defined by a single story someone else told about ‘people like me.’ I hope I can show that same grace to others, no matter where they come from or how they arrive on my doorstep.