Hot-Under-the-Collar Culture Wars

As if we don’t have enough going on already in our lives and across the world, we have new conflicts to deal with almost every other day. It has reached such high-pitched ridiculousness, that almost anything one says, or writes, or does, can be cause for another conflagration.

If it isn’t our own ruling party BJP spokesperson in India making an unwarranted comment which set the entire Islamic world reacting adversely, forcing the party to suspend her, it is the women in Iran and around the world cutting off their tresses in protest against the Iranian government’s treatment of a woman who died in police custody because her head-scarf revealed a little of her hair. Or we have millions of women in the US protesting because many states have banned abortion after the recent Supreme Court ruling on Roe v Wade. In fact, it is a serious mid-terms election issue in the US and ought to be.

And if it seems like most of the issues are to do with women, that isn’t entirely the case. Take the recent communal violence that took place in Leicester, over a month ago and then spread to Birmingham in the UK, making the UK authorities wonder how to deal with this situation in a multicultural Britain. It threatened to snowball into a larger diplomatic row between India, Pakistan and the UK, because both Asian countries took up the matter in completely partisan and sectarian terms. Fortunately, cooler heads seem to have prevailed and hopefully the violence has died down.

Almost anything contentious has the potential to become an issue to war over in these times. From climate change, including the issue of energy security in Europe and elsewhere, to pension reform and labour laws, and even returning to the office is incendiary matter these days. Why that might be so, is worth pondering over as also what can be done about it. Since my blog is about presenting a wise-eyed view of the world and I try and always emphasise the need for reflection and understanding, I thought it important to address the greatest conflict of our times.

Thanks to an explosion of media channels across all forms, people these days are much better informed about what’s going on around them. And whether their views are based on facts, or so-called fake news (I do not mean Trump’s version of it), they quickly form an opinion. Besides, in the days of social media, one is expected to air one’s views all the time, 24×7. Everyone has a view or opinion to express on every matter under the sun, and if they aren’t expressing it on social media, they are busy attacking the views of those with whom they differ or disagree. It is either trolls or echo-chambers in social media. Nothing wrong with disagreeing with someone, provided the attack isn’t personal, vile and offensive to the person concerned and everyone else reading the exchange as well.

I think the problem is not merely due to more news and information that is out there, but how we each individually process that news and information to arrive at our opinions. We rarely ever cross-check with other media reports to arrive at a fair assessment of what might have actually transpired. To this day, I can say that I don’t know what to make of the Leicester violence, since very little was reported on how it began and what led to it spreading. In fact, BBC World News didn’t even bother to report it in the television news beamed to India, and I was surprised to read about it in the Times of India. The Economist too has written about it, but has not bothered with the details of what caused it, why it flared up so suddenly and what is being done about it in Britain. In such a scenario, I prefer to reserve my comments and views. Many others would prefer to rant on social media or elsewhere, taking up cudgels for whichever side they feel is the aggrieved party, and in doing so, actually fan the flames of hatred and bigotry.

The other problem is that we live in such polarized times, politically and culturally, that we have forgotten how to agree to disagree. I wonder why it is that people feel compelled to impose their views and ideas on everyone else, even when it isn’t relevant to the relationship, whether at work or between friends. Some of this too might have been fuelled by social media, in the sense that we feel we have to react immediately to someone’s post, else the opportunity is gone. That’s the nature of social media, you see. It is two-way and in fact, multi-way communication between people, but it is also instantaneous, fleeting and ephemeral. One has to say it now, or never. We also know that social media itself can be the source of a lot of fake, unconfirmed news and views, as was observed with WhatsApp in India, a few years ago.

These polarized, politically charged times that the world is living in also make us react impulsively and emotionally to everything that is happening around us. In fact, many of the issues, whether they are to do with women, race, religion, immigration, the environment, are already highly emotive, and until we cultivate the ability to think, reason and examine it from several viewpoints, we will not be able to cope with these problems, much less resolve them. Things have reached such ridiculous levels, especially with powerful, entrenched lobbies that operate, that to express a view that is pro-environment, or pro-renewables, or anti-racism is nowadays called “woke”. And then we also have white supremacists in western countries playing the politics of victimization, using the “minority” argument.

This extent of polarization, I fear, will make it impossible for more of us to connect, discuss ideas and issues, and work together. It makes the most vital aspect of human connection – that of seeking common ground – next to impossible, since we are ourselves ruling it out. In the US, this new phenomenon is already being referred to as cancel-culture, in the sense that we cancel out people whose views are not similar to our own. And it is said to have begun at academic institutions, at great universities cancelling the talk or lecture of someone they had invited to speak, because of a recent comment made by the invitee, or for fear of retribution by opposing groups.

Life wasn’t like this even twenty years ago, and it can’t possibly be only social media that is to blame for taking up so much of our lives and time that we have forgotten how to connect and conduct meaningful conversations. I think that our tolerance levels for opinions and views different from our own has also plummeted during these years. It is true that some of it might be due to social media and our compulsive need to express our opinion all the time, but I think the problem goes deeper than that. It is because we lack the capability to think through issues and reflect on our own, before shooting off the hip as it were. We don’t even seem to think it’s necessary.

Finally, I’d like to add that this is also due to lack of leadership. In all spheres of life, whether it is at home, school and university, workplaces, media, the judiciary and other institutions that ensure a healthy and lively democracy, what we mostly see in recent years is a need to ingratiate ourselves to the powers that be, or to acquiesce, at the very least. We rarely ever call out instances of intolerance, hate and bigotry, racism, sexism, misogyny, no matter who the perpetrators might be. I believe that when more of us start to speak up and make it clear that such attitudes are not on, and also nip such instances in the bud, such divisive attitudes and beliefs will have nowhere to take root and grow.

Culture wars are the latest and most insidious threats to human society. They are more dangerous than real wars, because they infiltrate society with toxic beliefs and poison the very atmosphere between people. They pit us against us, with dogma that are often indefensible. It is true that culture itself means a set of ideas, customs and beliefs that define a society, and as Hofstede points out, culture is what differentiates people. But to make any one culture the dominant culture and to suppress every other, is no longer about differentiation but annihilation.

Cultures are about differences; that’s why they require the utmost understanding. And that’s hard work.

The animated owl gif that forms the featured image and title of the Owleye column is by and I am thankful to them.     

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