Trump. No, this isn’t a Trump article, nor am I going to spend too much time ‘bashing’ him. Rather, he is our starting point for today. You see, some people still think he’s a unique character. An aberration. I disagree. I think he’s more of a symptom of the times. Of our political dialogue. And therein, I will argue, lies the problem. I will not ‘bash’ or unduly criticize anyone or anything in this article. It is, for me, a last-ditch effort to return any semblance of hope to the political discourse we have. And bashing people or political ideologies would significantly counteract my purpose here.
The times, as we all know, are insecure at the moment. Whether you believe every one of the following points doesn’t matter. What matters is that we can all acknowledge that these themes are an issue in society, and that they are polarising factors. These include, but are not limited to;
- Immigration, which is both adding to our cultural wealth and eroding our sense of national identity
- Identity politics (from both sides), eroding the value we ascribe to our own identities
- Racism/antiracism which seeks to affirm people who are underprivileged, thereby eroding the sense of self for people who are more privileged.
- Police brutality, pitting people who favor ‘law and order’ against those who are critical of the way law and order is maintained.
- Climate change, pitting climate activists against people who favor the status quo.
- Socialism/communism, pitting the left against the right.
And, in the midst of these things, we have ongoing disputes about the solving of issues more pressing, like climate change, riots etc. All these things have polarised us to such an extent that we can’t really agree about anything anymore. In fact, we can’t even agree about whether or not there even is an ongoing pandemic.
Facts are no longer bipartisan or non-partisan. They are now biased statements given to us by fake news outlets, sponsored by George Soros or Bill Gates whose army of lizard people seek to overthrow the world order and, in conjunction with the Illuminati establish a new world order through the mass genocide of ⅓ of the world. And somewhere within all of this, there’s also a cabal that abuses children and drink their blood in an attempt to gain eternal life. It’s a mess, is what I’m saying. We’ve messed up.
Understanding what’s happening
A big part of what’s causing all this, is a lack of understanding about what’s going on around us. This sounds like I am going to point a finger at a specific group of people and call them stupid. That’s not the case. In fact, I can’t blame anyone for not understanding politics and science. They are, after all, lifetime endeavours. It’s the nature of the game. Both politics and science require a lot of research, a lot of learning to correctly understand. I myself have been learning about politics since the age of 12 and now, at the ripe age of 29, I can slowly start to say that I am beginning to understand the intricacies of it. You know; the treaties and principles underlying the policies, the ideologies and how and why they differ from country to country etc.
The same is true for science. It takes a lot of work to be able to even read a modern piece of scientific research. It involves all kinds of characters we don’t normally encounter in books that are shorthand for different kinds of values, actions, changes, circumstances etc. And, like with politics, there’s a whole lot of jargon that means different things given the context, that we should also analyse, interpret and more. Understanding the world in which we live, then, is actually really hard and requires a lot of time. Time that most people simply don’t have and if they do, want to spend differently. Understandably so, too, because our jobs demand a lot from us and when we’re done working, we want to kick back and relax some, not learn about things that for many people don’t interest or concern them.
But it is nonetheless a problem. Because, what we are left with is a few people – considered to be elites – handing us down the information we should act on. And, because news and media outlets choose to compete, this information is often slanted one way or another. Because we lack the knowledge and understanding of what’s going on, we are resigned to trust, because in lacking that knowledge and understanding, we lack the power to verify what we are told. We are, in other words, dependent. We have chosen to be dependent. But we’re not stupid. We also know that the people who are bringing us our information (journalists, reporters, media outlets, scientists, research funds, pharmaceutical companies etc.) Have a stake in the outcome of anything that is ongoing. So our dependency and trust makes way for mistrust and a search for independence.
The first thing to understand about politics in the messaging and communication sense, is that politics is more or less a feedback loop. It basically works like this:
- Politician A says X
- Significant demographic for politician A shows they approve
- Politician A doubles down
- Politician B disagrees and say Y (roughly the opposite)
- Significant demographic for politician B shows they approve
- Politician B doubles down
- Politicians A and B are now at odds
We see this in the false dichotomy that keeps reappearing between the Left and the Right. More and more we are losing the middle ground. In part, we can blame this on the above noted lack of understanding. But not entirely.
Perhaps most of all, we can blame this on two distinct factors; branding and social media.
Within the field of branding, it is widely known that to have a clear brand, you should be defined by two clear metrics; what you are, and more importantly, what you are not. If we look back at Trump’s 2016 campaign, but this is also true for other populist politicians across the globe, he spent a lot of time defining himself as successful, self-made and rich. But he spent significantly more time criticising the opposition and the past president. His message was simply; “I’m different”. Just like Mc Donald’s spends their commercials effectively saying “We’re not Burger King, we’re better.” and vice versa. Just like we see a Burger King crowd that dislikes Mc Donald’s burgers, we see a right-wing crowd that dislikes left-wing ideas and vice versa. It also doesn’t help our unity that a lot of our elected officials seem to be unable or unwilling to refrain from using personal attacks on their opponents, because that too ‘trickles down’ to their constituents.
Branding is especially effective on social media. The advertisement boards of our age. And even more so when it comes to political branding. Social media algorithms favor any message that gets a lot of ‘hits’. We get to see, very frequently, posts that aren’t relevant to us, were it not for “so and so liked this, you might like it as well”, or “so and so commented on this”. Now, public figures and celebrities have a very extensive reach on social media. They have a lot of followers, are often among the proposed follows and thus tend to get a lot of ‘hits’. Especially when a politician makes an inflammatory comment, they will increase their hit amount due to people sharing or liking it, but also because opponents of that comment will head in to discuss it and argue about it. This, in turn gets them more favor with the algorithm and thus more followers etc. We are now back in the feedback loop I described earlier. But rather than just favoring hard branding, we are rewarding harsh language and inflammatory comments.
The lives of the not-rich
We can talk about politicians and the media until the cows come home, but the thing is, it’s not about them, is it? At least, not really. They influence us, sure. But it’s not them rioting. It’s not them shooting protesters. Rather, it’s us. Your average civilians, who are somehow being radicalised to the point where we’re ready and willing to burn down businesses or shoot each other with live guns or fireworks. How come?
Well, let’s start by blaming Covid-19. Keeping people cooped up in quarantine, it turns out, isn’t good for their mental health. People who are alone for too long get depressed, and are more prone to mood swings because they lack the anchor human interaction provides. When these people then are confronted with the nteenth example of injustice, they are more prone to lash out in protest.
But perhaps more significant than Covid, is the economic circumstances in which the biggest portion of most Western societies find themselves and have found themselves for years. Ever since the crash in 2008, a lot of the middle class have seen reports of first them being used disproportionately to fund the bail-outs of those companies and people who caused the crash. And, when that was all done, they saw reports of economic growth but haven’t seen any growth in their purchasing power. In fact, the largest portion of the poor and middle class saw their purchasing power decline. This is and has been perceived as an injustice, because if there is economic growth, and there is a rise in GDP, but the middle class isn’t noticing it, where does the money go? Exactly. The top. Here, too, we find a significant amount of anger and two proposed solutions. Thus; two different camps.
That then, gets us to the whole capitalism/socialism issue that seems to be pervading the political discourse throughout the West. Now, far be it from this article ti define, reiterate or even summarise the schools of thought behind these rather lofty ideas. I shall leave that for future subjects. However, I would like to treat this debate as an example of a bigger problem, which I have dubbed ‘the problem of the big words’.
When we talk about political ideas online, it’s only a matter of time before someone is called a socialist or a communist. Now, to be fair, I have seen some people advocating for socialism, communism and laissez-faire capitalism. These people, however, are very rare. The great majority of people who are called socialist, communist or the traditional “capitalist swine”, are actually people who are proposing certain policies like for instance ‘medicare for all’. This is a policy idea that certainly borrows from socialism, but is a far stretch away from actual socialism, which is a complete ideology and way to structure societies. Not to harp on it for too long, but it’s no more socialist than having a collectivised army (which we have everywhere in the West). The problem with these kinds of big words is that they’re accusatory and abstract. A lot of people simply don’t know exactly what they mean and perhaps, therefore, we shouldn’t use them.
Perhaps, though, the problem of big words is best explained by a practical example. As some of my readers might know, I live in the Netherlands. Home to the now-infamous Black Pete.
A quick explanation of what Black Pete is for the uninitiated; Black Pete is the helper of our version of Saint Nicholas. Not unlike the elves in American folklore, Black Pete is a fun addition to the “Saint Nicholas bringing joy to children” folklore. Black Pete gives out candy to children who encounter him on the streets and they also do acrobatic tricks. The myth surrounding Black Pete is that they (Black Pete isn’t a single character, but a group of helpers, just like Santa Claus’ elves) are children who behaved badly and were taken to Spain (the myth originates back in the 1700s, during which the Netherlands and Spain were at war), where they were trained to become a ‘Pete’. Black Pete, according to the now-active folklore, is black because of the soot from chimneys. There is, however, evidence to suggest that Saint Nicholas is actually a modern reflection of Wodan, who travelled across the skies with two crows, which lends a different reason for the Petes being black. Anyway, the problem with Black Pete, is that the character as it’s used isn’t just a white person with soot-like smears of facepaint. Black Pete looks different. I will include a picture for reference, on which we see that he is what’s known as a ‘blackface’ character, complete with afro-like hair and earrings that resemble those worn by slaves. And that is where the problem lies for many people.
Every year for 7 years or so straight now, we’ve been having a debate in our public discourse about whether or not Black Pete should be allowed to continue existing. Tensions rise, and more and more people join the debate. But, prior to these last 7 years, the debate was far more civil and far less heated. So what has changed? Well, the media got involved for one, but we’ve had that paragraph for now. However, in the media, people who are against Black Pete called the practice of Black Pete ‘racist’. Now, whether you agree with that point or not (I do), we should look at the effects these statements have had. When someone says that a practice you enjoy is ‘racist’, ‘socialist/communist’, ‘misogynist’ etc., what tends to happen is that you feel offended. You are accused of liking a practice that is for instance racist, so you feel like you are being accused of racism. You will then be tempted to more vehemently resist this narrative and get involved in the discussion. Odds then are, that you get carried away in this counter-narrative, heating up the argument further. And that is exactly what we have seen in the ‘Black Pete debate’ we have in the Netherlands. People who like Black Pete for sentimental reasons having to do with their own childhood, get dragged into this discussion and they start to use tropes that are increasingly insensitive of racial inequality and racial justice. Whereas, had we just pointed out which features of the Black Pete character are problematic to people, we could have just found a way to amend the character that is Black Pete in ways that respect the sensitivities and nostalgia of all those people involved.
The question we must then answer, is what’s next? Well, as I see it at this point, and as the title of this article aptly states, “something’s gotta give”. By which I mean, quite plainly, we’re stuck. Stuck in a civil and political discourse that’s growing evermore polarised. Stuck in a political and social realm that has more and more trouble reaching agreements and more and more trouble behaving civilly. So, we can choose. Behind door number one, is further polarisation that leads towards a civil war. The two different sides to our dialogue will back up to their own respective walls and feel more and more trapped, until one or both of them come out swinging, at which point the relative governments will try to enforce peace and shatter the respective sides into more one-issue parties that can occasionally cooperate. Eventually, that civil war will die down, and the system might be reset, after all that needless loss of life.
Behind door number two, is understanding and approachment. By using less big words, by hearing each other and discussing openly and honestly the problems we face, without judging what we think the underlying ideology is, we might try to bridge this gap between left and right, between racist and advocates for racial justice. We might peacefully resolve our issues and preserve our ways of life. Because, as it seems, Something’s gotta give. And I hope we make the choice for door number 2.