The Danger of Divisiveness
MILTON GRANT VIA UN PHOTO
When the Obamas first stepped in Cuba in March of 2016, they signaled the historic reconciliation between two countries — and two ideologies — hitherto considered unrelenting opposites. However, that gesture was but a small island of unity in a seething ocean of intolerance. About a month later, anti-Muslim feelings peaked in Europe when terrorist attacks killed 31 people in Brussels. In June, the United Kingdom turned its back to integration and voted to leave the European Union. To cap off the year, Colombians showed how divided their country is by rejecting the FARC Peace Accords in an almost evenly split referendum.
All these events, albeit different in nature, illustrate how polarization is alarmingly shaping the early history of the 21st century. We live in a time when comprehension, debate, and cooperation are often regarded as superfluous. As society has progressively loses the ability to maintain conscientious dialogue and continually fails to empathize with people who hold different points of view, it forces individuals to drift further and further apart. Such a force rejects an easy solution, not only because it manifests in extremely diverse forms and environments, but also because it is intangible by nature. The refusal to put differences aside and debate issues in a sensible manner incites excessive conflict, which makes analyzing its causes as important as identifying its occurrence. While it is true that some people contribute to the growing divide by trying to find scapegoats for issues they do not fully understand or approve of, that is not the whole issue. In fact, the polarization that we perceive on an international scale is intricately connected to another phenomenon: the rise of extremism.
Around the world, we see examples of how being a demagogue and preying on people’s darkest fears can get you places — even to the White House. In Brazil, this trend has had distressing consequences, leading to the rapid ascent of the militaristic far-right firebrand Jair Bolsonaro, a presumptive runner-up for the 2018 presidential elections. His wide-ranging appeal is, to some extent, due to his opponents’ behavior; a large number of his adversaries act as if they are stranded on opposite ideological islands. Therefore, they are unable to engage in dialogue with anyone who is sympathetic to Bolsonaro’s anti-establishment views and instead resort to finger-pointing and name-calling, thereby intensifying extremism. In the United States, this antagonism is responsible for excluding discourse, labeling Trump supporters as hateful bigots and Black Lives Matter activists as radical vandals. Such a dissent-filled scenario has immeasurable effects on society, as it poses an alarming threat to the promotion of human rights and to worldwide development. This platform of hatred and intolerance that lifts radical leaders such as Bolsonaro fosters a toxic environment towards minority groups, particularly those targeted by such bigotry, since when people embrace extremism, they often look for targets to justify their resentment.
In addition to causing the oppression of individuals, societal divide and political extremism have yet another effect: they hamper debate, and, consequently, progress. For instance, Brazilian lawmakers have put forth countless bills to reform the country’s federal entitlement system and adapt it to our growing elderly population for decades, but the topic’s contentious nature means that politicians' positions are an ocean apart from each other, and no proposal has ever been enacted. The not-altogether-different realm of intergovernmental peacebuilding faces a similar challenge; within the United Nations Security Council, a lack of comprehensive dialogue and an unwillingness to compromise have prevented member nations from solving the increasingly death-stricken crisis in Syria. Considering that the only way to combat a lack of understanding is through dialogue itself, as well as that the relationship between extremism and divisiveness is troublesome by nature — since both are caused by and originate the other — one might think that this situation offers no solution. However, it is exactly by fostering comprehension that we can heal wounds and avoid antagonism, even in highly polarized environments.
A tangible measure to bridge seemingly antagonistic straits is a United Nations reform that decentralizes decision making and brings more countries to the discussion table by curbing veto power and expanding the number of representations in the Security Council. The media also has a part to play in restraining extremism; rather than incite polarization by showcasing live audience-seeking quarrels, they should promote conciliation by broadcasting civil debates. In addition, educational systems ought to teach students how to think critically and how to deal with opposition, to avoid intolerance and bigotry.
Nevertheless, all these actions would be fruitless if they solely tried to change society, without acting in conjunction with it. Comprehensive change is often better achieved when it comes from ground-up, and not top-down approaches. Grassroots movements that involve diverse groups of people debating to reach a middle ground conclusion are what make people avoid extremist stances. Effective communication is the element that enables cooperation between seemingly diametrical opposites, as the United States and Cuba did with their newfound relationship. It is only through dialogue that small islands of unity can become archipelagos and, finally, continents.