The “Other” Conundrum


I was very (un) fortunate to interact with a Trump supporter recently – somehow I hadn’t realised that they are your everyday normal people (sort of like when you meet a real life Justin Bieber fan – who knew they existed?). Anyway, post the initial jaw-drop moment, I used the opportunity to try and understand the mentality behind the support. Enough of diplomacy, the lady berated, we are done with political correctness. We need a strong leader who will keep an eye out on who enters this country and why. Interesting, I coaxed, trying to maintain my intercultural communications trainer diplomacy, but what about the fact that most white Americans who support the guy were once refugees and that you yourself (the woman in question is Indian) are a migrant? Well, she said, my parents have worked hard to reach where they are now and it hurts to see how the taxes we pay are being used to support those migrants and refugees who want to avail benefits without working for them. I wondered out loud if there was no better way of ensuring that “they” do not take the system for granted, rather than shutting borders all together. The lady maintained that keeping “them” out is the safest bet now that she was raising her own (brown skinned) daughter in the country.

It was a typical rant from someone who had privileges and would do anything to keep them without thinking for a moment where they came from. Unfortunately, there seems to be a trend here – one of using people’s fears of losing privilege to earn votes or draw support. Here are a few recent quotes from politicians and prominent figures across the globe:

“The progressive Islamisation of our country and the increase in political-religious demands are calling into question the survival of our civilisation.” – Marine Le Pen, President, Front National, France

“I will build a great wall — and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me —and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.” – Donald Trump, United States

“Islam is the Trojan Horse in Europe. If we do not stop Islamification now, Eurabia and Netherabia will just be a matter of time. One century ago, there were approximately 50 Muslims in the Netherlands. Today, there are about 1 million Muslims in this country. Where will it end? We are heading for the end of European and Dutch civilisation as we know it.” – Geert Wilders, Dutch politician

“Although Islam and the newcomers from the developing countries are the real instruments used to ruin the European welfare state, democracy and civilization, it is only possible due to the multiculturalist discourse matrix.” – Jussi Halla-aho, True Finns Politician

“It is no wonder the Safavids are in alliance with the Jews and the Christians against Muslims; history is witness to that. But the wonder is the delayed understanding of this fact until this moment.” – Saudal Shureem, Imam, Grand Mosque of Mecca

“Most Muslims destroy our country, our people and the Buddhist religion.” – Ashin Wirathu, Buddist Monk, Myanmar

In the Intercultural Communications context, academics have started referring to a 1992 paper by American political scientist Samuel Huntington, who predicted that the post Cold War era would see a “Clash of Civilisations”, and debating about whether that prediction is indeed, coming true. In every sense, the current world scenario does seem to point towards a clash between civilisations. Some academics have also spoken about Huntington’s theory as being self-fulfilling.

Though much of the world (or its politicians) may not have read Huntington’s work and may not necessarily be conspiring to fulfil his prophecy, the huge outreach of media does work to propagate this myth. According to an article by Yale Global, globalisation of the media allows instantaneous dissemination of the extremists’ point of view – both jihadists and far-right extremists who advocate violence, intolerance and segregation. As a result, complex issues, rather than being seen and understood in that light, illicit and provoke immediate and extreme reactions from the public.

This phenomenon is in turn used by some politicians to project the fear of a “common enemy” with the promise to protect the people if they are voted to power. Hence, expansive media reach, political propaganda and that propaganda spread through the expansive media reach in turn makes the theory as self fulfilling one.

It is important that people make an effort to understand everyday conflict situations as objectively as possible and facilitate positive interactions in society. In reporting and discussing cross border conflicts, there need to be stronger voices talking about the roots of the conflict in a way to avoid the “otherisation” of people. As research shows, however, most people selectively choose messages that confirm their beliefs, and rarely that counter them. In that case, as long as political propaganda is strong enough to incite sentiments, and media exists to propagate them, we may be relying solely on the common man’s ability to maintain equanimity in thinking without overreacting to conflict situations and jumping to take sides.

In our eagerness to pick sides, we often tend to forget humanity and indeed, our own roots (like my acquaintance). It is then, an important aspect of intercultural training and even of everyday education and self discipline, to practise responding objectively, rather than to react impulsively to situations.

Written by Divya Susan Varkey, Intercultural Communications Practitioner and Trainer

The “Other” Conundrum

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