Friday, 11 December 2015

33. Ambiguity and polarisation

Lately, there were a few of completely unrelated news, somehow touching the issue of ambiguity and polarisation particularly in identity-related subjects: gender identity, ethnic identity, religious identity, political identity, national identity or any other label that attempts to qualify the "I am" statement. The news show our difficulty in dealing with ambiguity (with the help of the media and some politicians) and how easy it is to wedge two groups apart. 

Regarding sexuality and gender

On the one hand, a controversy generated by Germaine Greer after she shared her opinion that trans-gender men to female that have been gender reassigned are not women. In her discussion with Kirsty Wark there is no alternative even discussed to the male-female polarity.
By this time, Facebook had already introduced more than 50 possible gender descriptors even adding the option of customise the description, suggest a new one and choosing which pronoun people should use in relation to your gender.
On the opposite side of the globe, in Argentina a different discussion was taking place. Immediately after a law that allowed people to change their gender in their official documentation became effective, people started to complain this binary definition was already old. I'm neither, I'm both, I don't know, I don't want to omit my history, these two polarised classifications don't define me. People even entered in the discussion of the complex realm of sexual identity that is composed by more than one dimension (biological, gender identification, predominant sexual preference, non-predominant sexual preference, etc.) or why should anyone be labelled (an argument that Foucault also discussed).

Regarding ethnicity and cultural integration

In light of the Paris attacks, a new debate emerged discussing the two different models of cultural integration that France and UK have followed: assimilation v multiculturalism, and their failures to avoid having home-grown terrorists. In an article for The Guardian, Kenan Malik reports: 

The French critique on multicultural policies:
Such policies, they claimed, were divisive, failing to create a common set of values or sense of nationhood. As a result, many Muslims were drawn towards Islamism and violence. “Assimilationist” policies, French politicians insisted, avoided the divisive consequences of multiculturalism and allowed every individual to be treated as a citizen, not as a member of a particular racial or cultural group.
Kenan Malik concedes:
Many of the French criticisms of multiculturalism were valid. British policy-makers welcomed diversity, but tried to manage it by putting people into ethnic and cultural boxes, defining individual needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people are put, and using those boxes to shape public policy. They treated minority communities as if each were a distinct, homogenous whole, each composed of people all speaking with a single voice, each defined by a singular view of culture and faith. The consequence has been the creation of a more fragmented, tribal society, which has nurtured Islamism. 
In the meantime, in assimilationist France, policies were officially based on tolerance and the  “droit à la differénce” (the right to be different), following Foucault logic of why-the-state-should-label-the-citizens (in fact, by law they cannot collect ethnic statistics) and considering that ethnic classifications are a racist concept that belonged to the past (colonial France or Vichy). As a result, they had little information about the reality of minorities. They did not know that there was higher youth unemployment, they did not know there was more school desertion (that could only be observed when researches quite recently stating to use tangential data as country of origin and country of origin of parents), they did not know that if you presented a CV with an Islamic name it had highly significant chances of being dismissed. They did not know, therefore there was no programme or policy. They did not know either that most immigrants are secular and relatively liberal.

After a big wave of North African immigration came to France and the 2005 banlieue riots happened, France moved towards more active assimilationist policies: imposing common national values, showing hostility against "divisive" symbols (eg religious) whilst making a bit more effort to "appear" diverse in public spaces. It was only in 2006 (!) that the first black news reader was appointed in French TV (TF1-Harry Roselmack).

Neither putting everyone in the same box with the label "equal" -rendering their issues invisible- nor putting the minorities in boxes with the label "different" -different to the majority-, seem to have worked because neither of the approaches was truly accepting of individuality and circumstances. This seems to be particularly true for those with the ambiguity of feeling they belong to the collective identity that somehow rejects them and thus making them feel they don't truly belong (eg the second generation immigrants/passive immigrants, as much as any disfranchised teenager that fantasises with finding the acknowledgement of existence in acts of violence or even -ambiguously- in self destruction).

Syria and the Islamic state

Of course, when we read in The Intercept that ISIS goal is eliminating the grey-zone of coexistence, we are in front of another polarisation attempt and wedging this reaction when a group rejects a minority.  After the Charlie Hebdo attack, the Intercept reports:
"The attack had “further [brought] division to the world,” the group said, boasting that it had polarized society and “eliminated the grayzone,” representing coexistence between religious groups. As a result, it said, Muslims living in the West would soon no longer be welcome in their own societies. Treated with increasing suspicion, distrust and hostility by their fellow citizens as a result of the deadly shooting, Western Muslims would soon be forced to “either apostatize … or they [migrate] to the Islamic State, and thereby escape persecution from the crusader governments and citizens,” the group stated, while threatening of more attacks to come.
They also report that it is the same strategy that Al-Qaeda used in Iraq to wedge a sectarian war:
In a 2004 letter to Osama bin Laden, Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, laid out his proposal for provoking such a conflict, calling for terrorist attacks against the Shiite majority population that would lead to a harsh crackdown on the Sunni minority. In such a scenario, his group could then coerce the Sunni population into viewing it as their only protector. “If we succeed in dragging them into the arena of sectarian war,” Zarqawi wrote, “it will become possible to awaken the inattentive Sunnis as they feel imminent danger and annihilating death.”
Slavoj Zyzec writes for the New Statesman in "We need to talk about Turkey":
This obscure background makes it clear that the “total war” against Isis should not be taken seriously – they don’t really mean it. We are definitely dealing not with the clash of civilisations (the Christian west versus radicalised Islam), but with a clash within each civilisation: in the Christian space it is the US and western Europe against Russia, in the Muslim space it is Sunnis against Shias.
The Heute Show, a German comedy show, has produced a fake advertising for Hasbro's wargame Risk "Syrian edition" claiming to be for 23 to 96 players (you don't need to speak German to understand the point).

Living in Wonderland

We could write forever about the ambiguity of these times where in every action, in every piece of news there are multiple meanings and intentions sometimes conflicting, when we find "everything so strange that nothing is surprising" (Virginia Woolf, discussing Lewis Carroll's Alice's adventures in Wonderland - even though she could perfectly be speaking about Donald Trump).

In a time where the never-ending economic crisis and the need of stabilising mechanisms for the Euro pushes Europe towards more political integration, populist right movements are surging in many countries aiming to go backwards and reclaim sovereignty back from the Union, increasing border controls, etc.

Another clear example of this ambiguity is Saudi Arabia. 

1) They are expanding women's rights (they are holding the first election where women can stand and vote). In an article for the Independent, Brian Murphy reports:
“Saudi Arabia has done a great PR job in selling these elections as part of much-touted reforms,” said Ali al-Ahmed, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs. “The reality is that not much changes.
Whilst also saying:
"Yet to dismiss the elections as mere window dressing also fails to grasp the moment."
2) They are fighting an oil price war apparently against the fracking industry being developed by their ally US that would cut their energy dependence (and their share of the market), but most significantly affecting the Russian economy.

3) They are blocking decisions at the Paris summit, when the middle East is one of the regions that will probably be uninhabitable due to climate change (higher temperature, more sandstorms, more social unrest as we saw in Syria). They admit to a potential future without fossil fuels and attempting to ask for compensation for the loss of future oil income. 

4) Being an ally to the US, it is claimed to be in cohort with Turkey both not being particularly transparent about their interest in fighting ISIS.

Living in ambiguity

I go back to the conclusions of "The ghosts of conflicts past".

A veil that polarises everything into good and bad has many advantages. A world full of nuance and imperfect decisions is uncomfortable, but it is also more real. A world view that can be reduced to the format of a football match with two emperors disputing territories or trying to prove their system better might be easy, even entertaining, but keeps us in the illusion that we are mere spectators. We do not connect to our reality and thus we cannot affect it.This connection with reality is particularly difficult in the fog that the media creates for us trying to feed our sense of identity and belonging for repeating a pre-crafted opinion, that comes with a label pro or anti (in political issues), skipping all the rational argumentation part. We should be able to discuss our own ambiguity. See what Zizek says at min 14 and 39 onwards on the following video:

This veil not only polarises but also fragments. It decouples economy and politics, warfare and arms trade, freedom and the structures that provide opportunity, and probably most importantly past and present.

But if studies show that we find truth in groups, and that the way that thought, science and emerging structures are networks and not trees, that means that each point, each individual, each nation is important. Our own personal perspective might not be "the truth" but it has a purpose and in expressing it, it can help the person next to us to drop his own confirmation bias and vice versa. And for that happening, we should not be all saying the same things, repeating the words of others, aligned and even less, labelled.
I am. No labels.


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