For a nation, at any given point in time, the most dismal of fears is to know that the future may hold lesser and worse than the present day. Our ambitions to see better days ahead fuel the fire of our pursuits as individuals and as citizens of a country. Most healthy societies have a set of common objectives that define these pursuits which are building blocks for an ongoing relevance to its history, and of its individuals’ dreams. These pursuits, through diligence and a devoted effort, are made achievable by those in positions of authority and influence, political leadership included. They lay the steppingstones that we can tread upon as a nation. Yet we can conceivably conclude that politics does have the potential of being masterfully divisive.
There is a fine breaking point for polarization in a society, between being healthy to its core values, and being detrimental to the very thread that weaves the fabric of its unification. It is extremely vital to recognise the pulse of such a political narrative and the severity of dangers it can systematise before we reach a point of no return, which, for a democracy, is dictatorship. Political disagreement is different from merely holding an extreme opinion in politics. While the former brings light, the latter is a source of heat in conversations and interactions. This divide is a prolific ground for only one type of ideology, that which feeds on mass hysteria and then leads to a culture of elimination and cult following: the very characteristics of fascism that scholars on the subject have described many a times.
Growing up in Pakistan, I learnt to take impassioned exchanges on politics as a norm, for everyone, anywhere. I now live in a society where politics and religion were mostly considered off limits for conversations, but it all changed with Trump’s presidency. Politics has been brought to dinner tables, classrooms, and for me as a physician, to doctors’ offices and physician lounges. There is both good and bad to this change. In such environments, everything and anything can be politicised. So, if we do not express an articulated opinion, we may be benefiting the wrong side. And yes, there can be a great deal of wrong and erroneous in a political leader and their politics, except to those who revere them to the extent of devoted worship. If political affiliations become so sensitive that they venerate the leader to the level of divinity, not to be touched with bare hands of uncensored conversations, it can only lead to a politics of faith and adoration. In any such collective, one sees no evil, hears no evil and speaks no evil, without appreciating that the very evil they are avoiding may actually be hiding in their own interpretation. This quagmire benefits only fascist ideologies. In any healthy society, nonsense is never accepted as an opinion. It may be allowed to exist, but it is challenged and constantly confronted. And the first step in an effort to defy nonsense is to uncover it.
I agree with the dynamics of a dialogue and the prerequisites thereof, but then what do I make out of a leader who wants his followers to go and raid the world?
In the present times, both in my country of birth and in my adopted homeland, I see a leader who divides the nation, makes them mistrust the rule of law, the very constitution and the democratic process. I see a leader who creates doubts against the institutions – including the judiciary – that are essential to the existence of democracy, and slaps labels of dishonour such as corruption and treason on to his opponents, declaring them not worthy of dialogue or negotiations. All this to an extent that his political career is nothing but rhetorical slogans, and that too, always outside the domains of the powerhouse of public office politics, i.e., the house of elected representatives.
Does that sound familiar? I am talking about Trump, but wait… am I also talking about Khan?
Sadly, yes! But more concerning is the fact by the followers of these leaders, I may not be seen as someone with a contradictory opinion but as a distant extreme, no different than themselves. What can be done to fight this zealotry in political views set forth by example by the leader himself, without perpetuating it? In the context of the recent rise of Trump in America, this subject has been acutely studied and deliberated upon. Putting it in a nutshell, the answer is: talk and action, stand out when talking to be heard, and act silently and forcefully in the background, inside and outside the political arenas.
Whether we see leaders like Trump or Khan as fascists, neo-nationalists, neo-fascists, populists, tyrants, authoritarians or otherwise, the fact remains that their politics has the capacity to cast a spell on their supporters to a degree that it eviscerates the delusional left’s reliance on fact-based political discourse. We are then liable to hear similar noise among their challengers, the liberals and the left, that does not accomplish much other than enabling mass hysteria – strident at first, but soon becoming a feckless void.
It is true that any conversation between two sides that starts with an instinctive avoidance is unlikely to reach a consensus, but it must go. In politics, the only consensus needed is the desire to reach one through dialogue. That is the spirit of democracy. The only other alternative, that of staying silent and “holding our opinions, voting when the time comes” makes politics more of a personal preference, a private affair, whereas it is quite the contrary. It is a collective issue which matters to all who share space in the platform or framework called society, and it should.
Silence breeds ignorance and ignorance breeds fear. We may achieve a great deal by speaking in times when political debates are seen as ‘an unhealthy and destructive’ discourse. Silence on such topics cannot be brushed aside as ‘civility’ from fear of alienating others. Every struggle and all reforms start with dialogue. This is why John Lewis did not stop when told “wait and be patient, this is not the right time.”
One can contend that politics is not social reform, but in a democracy, the leader is the bearer of the burden of reason, so unless you point out the wrong and obviate the right, how will you find which party and which leader to choose?
In all of this, let us be mindful that anger is corrosive to democracy, and not justified. Hence there is a need to call out and point out when anger-inciting politics is exercised by the leaders on both sides of the isle. Politics should never be accepted as an individual’s personal vendetta that can be guarded with sentiment. The regressive views, bigotry and unjust tactics have to be called out even if it ‘hurts someone’s feelings.’
In the pre-Trump era here in the US, and in times pre-Khan in Pakistan, even in largely two-party political systems, there was no apprehension of offending friends, hurting feelings, or bruising egos, as political beliefs were not thought of as something sacred. With this decadence, another pitfall followed; that of such unshakable political beliefs having the ability to be harmful in matters relating to the non-political realm also. An example of this is the issue of vaccination against Covid-19, which should primarily be decided on merits of medical science. However, it is not. There are people who refuse to be vaccinated just because they see their audacious leader Trump, who despite being vaccinated himself, ridicules it in his speeches at rallies, at times tearing his facemask in public and villainously declaring the pandemic as a hoax on others. As a physician practicing in a deep red state, do I stop there and accept this as a ‘political choice’ of my patients? No. I must present to them my view, in the right frame of reference, that of science and substantiated facts. Otherwise, I am guilty of dishonesty to my profession.
I agree with the dynamics of a dialogue and the prerequisites thereof, but then what do I make out of a leader who wants his followers to go and raid the world? Is he inviting dialogue? Is dialogue even a possibility, when the facts presented do not reach the audience because their minds are corrupted? The repetitive lies, the dizzying U-turns, methodically crafted self-serving half-truths all meander dangerously close to dismantling the very pillar of political strength, democracy itself – unless it guarantees him a long, near-permanent dictatorial rule. This has to be resisted.
The onus is on the inviter to abuse and violence, which has to be vehemently opposed with no ifs ands or buts. And those who take nonsense as an opinion and ‘respect’ it may be seen by history as accomplices.
In times when political leaders breach social contracts and insist on inflicting on us a polarising political philosophy which best serves their personal whims, politeness and savior-faire are neither priorities, nor good excuses for inaction.