Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Of burning shops and falling monuments

Forming factions to inflame polarisation in a diversified society.

The world is at war. It may not involve direct conflict between super-powers that will deny current turmoil the description of World War III but you would be hard pressed to find a place in the world where a war or factional skirmishes are not taking place, or where it is not affected by neighbouring turmoil. (See summary here.)

In numbers of countries and people involved it may be approaching in human desolation that of previous world wars. The entire Middle East for example, is now fully at each other’s throats, from Pakistan and Afghanistan in the East to Saudi-Arabia in the West, spreading over to most of North Africa and further south into sub-Saharan Africa. Yemen has become the latest country to be embroiled in a full scale civil war, dragging in ten other countries in a coalition against the Houthis, including Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Morocco. If you add Russia and Ukraine; the spill over effects of refugees flooding into Europe, and the involvement of the United States, Britain, Europe and Russia either directly or indirectly, then much of the globe is involved in armed conflict.

Millions of people have perished in the past five years and tens of millions displaced and forced into severe deprivation. In Syria alone some 250 000 have been killed, and more than 10-million displaced.

It’s an onion of many layers, which may explain media fatigue in its coverage and an inability to take a satellite view of the turmoil, connecting the dots and identifying a common thread. On the surface, they all seem to be separate: sectarianism involving Sunnis and Shi’ites; religious fanaticism such as ISIL and Al-Qaeda; other factional skirmishes or simply just popular rebellion for regime change often involving super-powers and leaving even greater devastation in its wake such as in Iraq and Libya.

One can only marvel at our awe of the destructive force of nature. An earthquake, cyclone, flood or tsunami in which tens of thousands may perish will occupy our news headlines for weeks. A biological threat of some virus or epidemic such as Ebola will likewise capture our attention, with each new case justifying a headline, closing airports and disrupting travel. Apart from the 5 great extinctions, none of our more frequent natural disasters can compare to what we do to ourselves. Nature is far kinder to human beings than they are to each other.

Close to the core of that onion is something very near to a virus. It is factionalism – that force which forms groups either out of fear or fervour, inevitably creating defensive groups in others and ultimately pitching themselves into open conflict; as deadly as any epidemic nature can inflict upon us. Polarisation presupposes the forming of factions. They come in many guises such as cross border sectarianism; religious convictions and extremism; nationalism; patriotism; racism; tribalism; xenophobia and even political parties and rival trade unions. What they have in common is the extrapolation of unbridled individual self-interest to a group united under a self-righteous flag. They are also very susceptible to manipulation of individual willpower by fanatical leaders or despots.

In the majority of cases factions are an expression of our survival extinct at the expense of the more noble instinct of empathy. They inevitably reflect the worst in us, not the best. Of course it could be argued that forming factions is in our nature as social beings. But we should also see them for what they are – potentially serious threats to social cohesion. To prevent them from becoming radical, their concerns have to find some expression in the more benign social formations.

Factionalism will thrive in an environment of marked material disparities, especially where privilege is perceived to be linked to simply being a member of another faction or group, including race, nepotism or inherited status. It will also finds its roots in history and tradition. There is a touch of cynicism in those who believe that simply teaching history will enable firmer common ground for cohesion. It is not only the way that history has been written and presented that shapes responses, but also its interpretation. Even well versed historians can be in conflict on issues of the past.

Historians often insist that its takes at least a number of decades before events can be placed in proper context. Current events show that this may be an understatement – it could take centuries! Only now, for example, can one start arguing that 19th and early 20th century colonialism may rival the industrial revolution in its impact on the world. Certainly the divisions in the Middle East can be traced back largely to the betrayal of Caliphs and the wanton divvying and swopping of territories between the colonial powers of that time. Most of Africa suffered the same fate because Colonial powers had far greater concern about territory and resources than the interest of indigenous populations.

Factionalism and polarisation have to be contained or muted by addressing both current circumstances of hopelessness, purposelessness and despair, as well as behaviour shaped by tradition and different interpretations of history. Much has been written about the first as certainly one of the critical global issues of our time. The second is perhaps more difficult, but life coaches have a simple formula which can be applied at a societal level.

It embraces a principle that one should never allow the past to destroy the future. You cannot re-write your personal history, but you can certainly reinterpret it by reflecting on it, seeing the benefits even from trauma, and carrying the best forward. With that comes an even more difficult task of accepting accountability for the choices you have made.

It may be a substantial, if not close to hysterical leap to link the defacing of statues and burning of KZN foreign owned shops to the human inferno in the Middle East. Perhaps Professor Jonathan Jansen of the University of the Free State is right in his assessment that the monument protestors are a small minority and South Africa has a solid middle class that will sustain stability. The same could be said of the xenophobic attacks in KZN. But factions do not need a majority and democratic and legal restraints to wreak havoc. The monument controversy carries the germ of factionalism, and certainly xenophobia in KZN is a fully blown symptom of the virus.

Given our diversity we may want to question whether in the interest of freedom of speech, public protest and acceptance of realpolitik we are not becoming too blasé about the inherent dangers of humankind’s greatest scourge.

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