Namaste. Something ominous is brewing in the West- it has been for many years. I write this article to highlight the major sociopolitical concerns that plague our Hemisphere, Failure to mend these exposed frailties will have lasting repercussions for the Nation, and by extension, the World. If contemporary History has taught us anything, what takes root in America, swiftly, invariably – and oftentimes silently– makes its way to Bhārata. The warning bell tolls without relent, and India must be prepared to face these eventualities head-on, particularly with regards to the imminent Institutional Capture by Intersectionality Forces.
Loss of Middle Ground
Political polarization has created chasms so deep that individuals are increasingly unable to cross party-lines to hold civil conversations with the other side. There is no room left for nuance and multivariate analysis of opinions, options, or outcomes. Each side finds not only nothing redeemable about the other, but actively engages in demonizing their political opponents. In this game of ‘us versus them we have obliterated the center-field¹.
Distrust has reached record highs, and if we do not check this unabated polarization, we run the risk of irreparably damaging the cohesive strands that held our Nation together this long. We have already stretched them to tensile limits². Since politics runs downstream from culture, there is first a need to explore the deep fissures in our social fabric to understand how they manifest as political schisms.
Rising Distrust, and the Death of Nuance
“Do I understand your position correctly?”, “When you say X, does it imply Y?”, “May you explain differently?”- these are questions we no longer ask of our peers or counterparts. We are quick to arrive at the worst possible interpretation of what has been stated.
Our perception overrides intention. Subjective feelings take primacy over objective facts. This mindset has led to the adoption of adverse ideas such as micro-aggression, wherein mere utterances, however benign, even if truthful, may be deemed objectionable and to be acted against, provided there is at least one candidate who can claim taking offense. This eliminates all scope for amenable disagreement.
We inch toward a call-out culture operating with the force of a lingering fear that anything spoken can and will be potentially misinterpreted and held against the speaker. This is not to suggest there are not actions worth calling out, but to plead the case for a dire need to discern between what constitutes a genuine misdemeanor vis-à-vis a divergence of viewpoints, or something said in levity. The dividing line between the two has been pushed considerably in the direction of over-sensitivity. Therefore, to safeguard ourselves from consequences, we hold back more than one reasonably should. To be excessively, even obsessively careful, is to sacrifice human connection and nuance. The pressure can only mount and release in decidedly unhealthy ways.
A vibrant community cannot thrive on distrust, only through fellowship. Not silence, but through dialogue. Not censorship, but respectful debate. And yes, that includes being exposed to ideas we do not agree with. The first step in celebrating diversity, is to celebrate diversity of opinion, ideology, and perspective.
It is deeply concerning that individuals can and have incurred irreparable damage to their careers for holding garden-variety opinions that stand in opposition to the enforced wisdom of a few outspoken mobs under the pretext of political correctness. Every time there is an inciting event, the narrative peddlers ensure that we have less freedom to speak freely today, than we did yesterday, due to the universal fear of being mislabeled and subsequently shunned. Political franchises, the media (mainstream and social), certain vocations of academia, and a growing number of corporations all contribute to this process- either through silence or complicity.
A phenomenon of name and shame has taken root, where we attempt to“out” individuals- not on objective merit of their actions, but the mere fact that their words or actions were disagreeable to us, if not at times due to personal vendetta. Speaking freely is no longer presented as a safe option. Our moral code once insisted that the burden of proof lie on the prosecutor. This has flipped to where one must prove their innocence due to assumed guilt ³. Due process and legal proceedings have been replaced with mob–justice and crowd-pleasing. Adjudications are not arrived at through intellectual churning- as they ought to be- they are a byproduct- or at least heavily compromised by- virtue signaling, internet hashtags, slogans, and protests. These are the new currencies to force compliance among the masses. That our major institutions- Academia, Corporations- are largely and disproportionately susceptible to Leftist influence should serve as a warning for what is to come ⁴. The solution is certainly not for the Right to react adversely by doubling-down, but rather for both poles to inch closer to the Center. Close enough to function, when necessary, as a single decision-making unit that can act in the best interest of the people, and show capacity for empathy over a contentious position taken by the other side during moments of disagreement.
A Stranglehold on Academia
Things have taken a particularly disturbing turn in Universities with the proliferation of cancel culture, i.e. de-platforming speakers based on the selective outrage of a few, and the establishment of safe spaces, which govern interactions on campus between students and teachers, determining what can or cannot be taught, in conjunction with trigger warnings. One of the primary aims of the University experience is to have our preconceived notions about life tested against the grinding stone of reason and rationality, and to refine our intuitions, if not replace them altogether. But instead, professors are disallowed from even presenting content for the sake of objective analysis. Students are actively encouraged, via constant affirmation through posters hung on corridor walls, common areas, and restroom doors, reminding them that they have a right- even a duty- to report their professors ⁵. Can an environment of distrust and censorship truly facilitate the goal of education? Greg Lukianoff, President and CEO of Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and Jonathan Haidt, Social Psychologist and Professor at New York University have described at length in their book ‘Coddling of the American Mind’ ⁶ the deleterious effect of over-sheltering students from opposing viewpoints and how it incapacitates them from dealing with pressures of the real world- leading to depression, excess fragility, higher suicide rates- among other problems.
Schools see a definite shift in the share of authority, autonomy, and monetary remuneration leaving the hands of educators in favor of chancellors, deans, provosts, overseeing-committees, diversity-bodies, and tribunals. This dwindling ratio of faculty members to administrators demonstrates that our Universities have relinquished the educational model in favor of a bureaucratic one. Decisions are taken not so much for the sake of incoming students, to groom them as they step into professional life, but to avoid law-suits, attract potential donors, shirk controversy, and, when deemed necessary, put teachers on trial as a sacrificial offering to mollify protesting students.
The forced resignation of Evergreen State University professors Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying facilitated by violent campus activist mobs ⁷, or the expulsion of Lindsay Shepard from Wilfrid Laurier University ⁸ for streaming a public news-channel debate on Bill C-16 ⁹ (legislating compelled speech), in her classroom, are only two, of countless examples, of how unwittingly we’ve entered the mouth of madness.
The Sword of Damocles
There was a time when preference to strike a contentious dialogue was merely dampened by the question “what will they think of me?”. Now it has taken the form of “what will they do to me?” The fear of judgement is a lot easier to handle, even overcome, than the fear of devastating repercussions.
Take the case of James Damore’s termination from Google ¹⁰ᵃ. There was no clear consensus within the scientific community, either for or against the conclusions drawn in his internal memo (some experts were supportive and others critical of it). Notwithstanding strawman attempts to discredit the content of the same, the fact remains his dismissal was a knee-jerk reaction based on alleged offense, and not an inquiry-driven outcome. Google would have been wiser to take this as an opportunity to refute his claims and take this conversation to its logical end, but they chose to do otherwise. What followed was a multi-plaintiff lawsuit, and public spotlight on Google and other Tech companies for enforcing their ideological biases over employees, with CEOs and other C-suite personnel made to testify before the US Congress. The lawsuit was dropped after Google reached settlement with the National Labor Board ¹⁰ᵇ. Damore’s was a tell-tale sign of how the sword of damocles, suspended on a fragile thread, looms over one’s head in the absence of an environment that nurtures ideological diversity.
Whether corporations and universities truly hold these prejudices (indications are that they do, at least to some degree) is the subject of a separate discussion. What matters is that acting in accordance to mob-pressure or a demand to terminate someone- while on the surface a good PR move that helps retain one’s reputation as a “socially aware” enterprise- only strengthens the conviction of said pressure mobs to repeat this feat with others agencies with perfect impunity, having gained the strength, confidence, conviction following each successive ruling, that intimidation techniques are the right approach. Our institutions must stop legitimizing such unruly behavior and scrutinize claims through independent investigations and objective analyses.
Seeds of Violence
With the growing disparity of narratives among major institutions in the West, there has been an ever-tightening clampdown on our ability to opine freely.
When narratives get hijacked by identity politics and group think, voicing contrarian views are touted as personal attacks, and refusal to enter the echo-chamber of the dominant “acceptable” discourse amounts to “bigotry”. The very notion of ‘allyship’ hinges on this premise. There are instances of student line-ups in Universities¹¹ᵃ ¹¹ᵇ ¹¹ᶜ where they are pressured to publicly accept positions they may or may not espouse in order to be vindicated from mislabeling. The marriage of post–modernism with leftist intersectionality politics has resulted in viewing the world through the binary categories of ‘oppressor’ and ‘oppressed’ ¹², it logically follows that one must either be a ‘villain’ or a ‘victim’, and there is no room left for seeing individuals for the multi-dimensional beings that we are. We are reduced to little more than our group Identity.
These are the basic ingredients for preference falsification, a term coined by Timur Kuran in his book ‘Private Truths, Public Lies’ ¹³, wherein individuals succumb to projecting false preferences based on imposed social expectations or fear of backlash- physical or otherwise. Extremism thrives in such an environment. What prevented Soviet farmers from protecting neighbors being executed in open fields by Bolshevik Marxists? What made empathetic German civilians bolt their doors, ignoring the heavy pounding and pleas for help, instead of sheltering persecuted Jews? It all begins with Preference Falsification of the masses, that overpowers kindness and subdues the best in us, because we all long to live for another day, to fend for our families, to retain our livelihoods and social standing.
Whether we look at the far-right (Nazis), or the far-left (Soviet Regime / Lao’s China / North Korea), each led to the deaths of Millions (tens of Millions in case of the latter)¹⁴. Despite occupying opposite ends of the political spectrum, both have one feature in common: Rising to power through intimidation and violence. They kept the general population in check, controlled their actions, censored their speech. They put forth the best gatekeepers and propagandists in the business to bolster their respective narratives. A span of half a generation is all that is needed to slip into this mold.
That, while authoring this piece I experienced moments of trepidation, omitting certain details deliberately knowing they will likely be twisted out of context, is a somber indication of the precarious times we’re in, and the extent to which our liberty is impinged in the sphere of free expression. Ironically, the refrain “…land of the free and the home of the brave” repeats four times in our National Anthem. We are running counter to that theme.
The Road Ahead
For those well versed with history, one may recognize several precursors of violence have already been sown. It is our duty to ensure they do not sprout. In the year 2005, when I immigrated from India to the US, any hint of a Government take-over via Maoist insurrection or anarchic forces would have been quickly snubbed out. Fast-forward 15 years, and we find significant many who give credence to such an idea. It has already manifested in packets around the country- the Evergreen College takeover by activists, and protesters capturing and occupying 6 city-blocks in Seattle, an area dubbed ‘CHAZ’ (Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone)¹⁵ are two of several that come to mind. Given the direction and the pace with which we are moving toward an Autocratic State, a second Civil War seems imminent. It is reasonable to assume we’re only a decade or two away from that eventuality, if not sooner. Which side will win is unknown. That America will lose is a certainty.
Without our intervention, things will continue to deteriorate. Below are some steps that can be taken for course correction:
- Work with urgency to free our institutions from the stranglehold of political dogma, and the implicit pressure to pick sides.
- Liberate our educational system and corporations in ways that facilitate free speech and free inquiry.
- Evaluate sociological models and political ideologies against established scientific literature
- Nurture an anti–fragile mindset in children / young adults
- Transition from entitlement to responsibility; from a rights-based to a duty-based society
- Search for an individual identity that is not strictly defined by the in-group.
- Expand the scope for Diversity and Inclusion Programs to also consider variations in ideology, skill-sets, education, professional experience, ingenuity etc., to prevent the formation of identity politics driven monocultures.
- Re-introduce nuance in our conversations.
- Do not assume the worst about what has been said as a first response, and let trust and goodwill be the common currency in our transactions.
- Settle for a final position after reasoning, fine-tuning and due exposure to counterarguments, without demonizing others for holding contrarian views.
- Move away from ideological possession, resist herd behavior / group-ism.
- Desist from negotiating with and rewarding pressure mobs with their desired outcomes.
- Endorse fact-driven news and reject narrative-driven channels. Though we did not discuss the role of Media in detail, their partisanship is evident. Whether a conservative bias or progressive bias, they are two-sides of the same problem, i.e. fueling polarization.
- Support political candidates who espouse center-left or center-right positions. Denounce extremists, and be, effectively, a vote-bank for moderation.
Accomplishing these ends will make for long strides in fostering communal harmony, rebuilding trust, and mending our torn national fabric.
DISCLAIMER: The author is solely responsible for the views expressed in this article. The author carries the responsibility for citing and/or licensing of images utilized within the text.