A self-reflection of the radical polarizing nature of socio-political thought today
If we have interacted extensively enough, I probably have mentioned to you at some point that I do not identify as left or right on the political spectrum. You could call me a centrist, but I do not identify as that either. I am not trying to depict myself as this super-cool rebel who is against the spectrum norm and who is trying to act differently and live by his own rules. I do not care about being “cool” or “uncool.” I am just a curious individual who happens to spend a considerable amount of time analyzing and evaluating trends and issues happening around the world.
Over time, I have come to realize that the ability to critically analyze social problems is a skill that is needed to advance humanity and promote peace and justice in our societies. However, I opine that this skill is thoroughly missing across cultures and societies due to several factors and as a result, hinders our potential to be united in the face of challenges and work together as one to genuinely seek peace and justice. I think the main reason for this sheer lack of critical thought or the unwillingness to pursue criticality is because of the vast polarization in our societies today. What I am trying to explain here is that because we wear these conflicting labels as an identity and go to great measures to protect the ideologies associated with them, critical thought is rapidly fading away from the fabric of our societies. As a result, there is an obvious unwillingness to actively listen to opposing viewpoints, much alone to sit and have a critical conversation with the other person. This, I believe, poses a threat to the future achievement of the “peace and prosperity” that we so blatantly advocate.
Right Vs Left Ideologies
It is no news that socio-political thought in the last few years has been vastly polarized pushing a narrative that when one identifies with an idea, they are against the other. People on the so-called “right” have an unfounded fear of the future and prefer to maintain the status quo because that is what they are accustomed to or believe should be the case. They are conservative in their thinking and do not want you “brainwashing” their kids in school, they do not want these “immigrant religious extremists” in their countries, and they do not want their guns confiscated. Others in this group think climate change is a hoax and doesn’t affect anybody, racism does not exist, and that a certain right-wing politician is a God-sent and savior of the world in these turbulent times. They view the other side as those against morals, logic, sanity, “reality,” “truth” and against everything that once held humanity together as one progressive entity (which in itself is contestable).
On the other end of the spectrum are the liberals who have managed to challenge traditional norms of society and in the past few decades, have genuinely given us all some tenable reasons to question the norm. But while they can be seen as a champion of change and critical thought, I argue that in recent times, they have also mirrored those who they are going against. It is good that they question the norm which provides a fantastic platform for dialogue but once you “question their question,” or try to probe further and be critical of their conclusions, you are automatically labeled “phobic,” against women’s rights or extremely patriarchal, androcentric, and toxic in nature to even think of such question. When you try to challenge the ideas on this side of the spectrum, you are seen to be against progress, against what’s “trending” and, by all means, you deserve to be canceled either online or physically, or if possible, you deserve to be locked up so as not to pose a threat to society’s progress! These days, expressing ideas and beliefs that some societies do not consider “leftist or liberal” enough could not only get you fired but also prevent you from finding work elsewhere. The root of our current issues lies in these two diametrically opposed ideas that have prevented us from communicating with one another.
Because we wear these conflicting labels as an identity and go to great measures to protect the ideologies associated with them, critical thought is rapidly fading away from the fabric of our societies. As a result, there is an obvious unwillingness to actively listen to opposing viewpoints, much alone to sit and have a critical conversation with the other person.
The Danger of Doing Labels Without Critical Thinking
Strongly identifying with labels on the political spectrum has the drawback of making us become fanatics of our own ideas. I will explain. For some people, when they identify with a label, it becomes challenging or even almost impossible to follow rationality and critical reasoning. That is, even if the opposing side has strong reasons that refute our own weak ones, instead of recognizing this and promising ourselves to consider it further, we allow our pride to overcome us and revel in our folly in the name of upholding a label. It is possible to engage someone in a respectful manner and not necessarily agree with them but acknowledge that “hey, that’s a very valid point you’re making.” There is nothing shameful in that.
However, the problem is that many who identify with these labels have unconsciously internalized the idea that understanding another person’s perspective devalues their capacity for critical thought and gives the impression that they lack a compelling case. So what? Who cares? As a result of this lack of acknowledging the other’s perspective, there is nothing you tell the other person on the other end that they will see as sensible even if your arguments were tenable or if the facts were stacked up in your favor. This is what these labels do to us. They make us think in parallels and polarity which has dismantled the opportunity for effective, critical dialogue which is far more helpful than the hate we spread in our interactions, especially online. For instance, the recent purchase of Twitter by Elon Musk has resulted in a surge of right-wing opinions on the platform, and they are doing the EXACT same things they are accusing the left-wingers of doing before the ownership transfer. How do we reconcile these differences? Is there even a possibility for open-minded, respectful, “no strings attached” dialogues at some point?
Strongly identifying with labels on the political spectrum has the drawback of making us fanatics of our own ideas.
Now, I understand that there are some people that obviously exhume hate whenever they converse with other people. It might be not easy to engage these people because their preconceived notions already portray some form of judgment against the other person and their thoughts. It takes a lot of courage and zest to engage people like this. But it can also be tiring hence, not everyone is willing to engage such individuals. I mean, some people will (rightly) be emotional about certain issues of peculiar interest to them. Of course, an argument can be made that being too emotional erodes one of critical thought in the moment which is an obstacle to constructive conversations. However, the ability to tame these emotions and engage more logically is a journey I think most of us are on. But if you must protect your sanity due to someone being hateful or hurtful by leaving a conversation, this is okay. The question here, however, is how can people position themselves without being hateful and how can people engage without being too emotional.
I understand that some individuals do these labels because the labels are more compatible with their political ideologies. But while you identify with that identity, it is crucial to give some opportunity for some critical thought. Do you simply jump on a topic because other individuals who share your identity or political affiliation support it, or have you analyzed the topic in-depth by yourself and formed your own thoughts on it?
I am not here to preach to you to be more left or more right. I am here to tell you that wherever you find yourself, it is more fruitful and effective to be rigorously curious and open to engaging the other party if they do not exhume hate or harm to you. For instance, I would rather engage someone who says they think affirmative action discriminates against white people (even though I somewhat disagree with that argument based on the historical and contemporary reality of the American context) rather than engage someone who says racism does not exist. If someone says the latter, what then is left to discuss? They have already made their claim. Case closed! But if they came up with a different type of argument that portrays the willingness to learn, for instance, say: non-whites are being favored over white people for certain top-level positions; even though I do not agree with that statement, we can dialogue about it and tease out the context and logic behind it.
Re-imagining Education for the Future
The school system has so much to do regarding this issue. It is extremely detrimental to churn out graduates who think the world is linear and polarized, or that others must think the way they think or risk facing legal troubles or risk being treated as a pariah by society. The school system must be designed to achieve the following goals: firstly, it must produce graduates who are knowledgeable about the world and do not exist in a vacuum. This way we can reduce the number of people who call Africa a country or those that think that the world revolves around them and that the entire cultures of the world eat blue cheese. This can be done by improving cultural diversity at schools and mandating people to take geography or a similar class that explores cultures and norms across the world.
Secondly, schools must be places of critical thought and dialogue. Students must be pushed to question things and ask why. Questioning sharpens one’s analytical skills and allows students to be able to engage in critical discourses. Thirdly, curricula must help students master the art of emotional intelligence and empathy, allowing them to practice active listening. Of course, not all students will graduate and become more critical in their interactions, however, if students were taught this way, the number of kids with polarized views who exhume hate for others could be reduced to an extent.
Wherever you find yourself, endeavor to practice active listening, empathy and acknowledge the other person’s point of view. It does not add or subtract from your mental or intellectual prowess; it also does not mean that you must change your opinions or values, but rather, it gives the opportunity to connect with people and share ideas in a decent manner. Remember, you do not have to agree with the other person’s viewpoint, but you can be decent enough to engage in a way that is respectful, whilst acknowledging their views.
Schools must be places of critical thought and dialogue where students must be pushed to question things and ask why. Questioning sharpens one’s analytical skills and allows one to effectively engage in critical discourses.
This article may have come out as some idealistic, impossible utopian dream. But I believe that it is very possible to have views and biases and still be able to engage critically wherever you are on the political spectrum or even outside of the spectrum. Seeing it as a utopian dream will only push us further apart which will discourage dialogues and potentially hinder the possibility of achieving any genuine peace and progress for the future. The world is bad as it already is, but I think we can still strive to have decent, respectful, critical dialogues wherever we fall on the spectrum. This, I believe, is an ideal worth fighting for, especially for the next generation.