A World of Victims and Perpetrators?

Transposing emblem by Andreea Sepi

Another election, another extremist candidate, another worrying result. More inflammatory rhetoric. Noi contra lor. Ei contra noastră. The us versus them ideology is making a surprising comeback after decades of glorified globalization. It would seem that, all of a sudden, people are discovering how precious and worthy of preservation their neck of the woods is.

Except that it’s not even about that.

Extremism is not about the world as patchwork: a beautiful quilt in which each individual square, delicately delineated, carries the charm of carefully preserved local embroidery. It is about ripping out the other squares entirely. It is about replacing diversity with uniformity in fear of losing one’s patch of earth in a sea of unfamiliar otherness.

It is about keeping it separate. Different quilts, different beds, different rooms. If possible, different planets.

Extremism (both left and right) is about the monopoly on righteousness and the policy of outrage. It is the obliteration of the individual. It is the ideology of black and white and the blotting out of grey areas. It is the doing away with civility for the sake of percentages and power.

Living side by side (especially when no one has asked your opinion about that) can be stressful. Why not declare it outright unbearable? Why all the relativity? Why all the concern for the other’s concerns? Wouldn’t a system of absolutes be more soothing? Politicians running for office use this for political gain, and – with negativity and impact all too often the main criteria for newsworthiness – it is no wonder the media is also stoking the fire.

Pushing extreme views inevitably leads to polarization because it paints the world in stark contrasts, forcing people to position themselves in an oversimplified dichotomy. The range of possible responses is reduced to allegiance and enmity. Reflected, nuanced opinions are replaced by knee-jerk reactions and reductionist thinking. Shutting out or shouting down the opponent – now perceived as deviant and dangerous – seems to be the only option left. In the battle for the minds and votes of the people, poison and vitriol are no longer off-limits. Polarization and raw discourse go hand in hand.

Extremism is the politics of frustration – and there seems to be a lot of frustration going around these days. In many countries, an increasing share of the population feels excluded from what they perceive as rightfully theirs. Whether this is objective truth or subjective (perhaps even induced) perception is not clear. We feel cheated out of something. Some piece of some pie. An identity. Some essential security in life. We begrudge the rest their access, and would rather shrink the pie than let others come out ahead. In Germany, we call it Schadenfreude. In Romania, it’s called “să moară şi capra vecinului” (the neighbor’s goat should also die).

In Germany, a spiral of polarization gained momentum in response to Angela Merkel’s ‘Wir schaffen das’ (We can do it) immigration policies. After the summer of 2015 was over, the first challenges appeared and the fears decanted. The water seemed clear on the surface, but deep down, the sand was turbid and unsettled. A country that had long resisted the creation of a controlled immigration framework now discovered the aftertaste of uncontrolled immigration. Western Germany began to feel crowded and heterogenous – years of economic migration from Southern and Eastern Europe, and a recent wave of Middle Eastern and African refugees were showing up in the social fabric. In the depopulated East, which still lags behind economically, middle-aged blue-collar workers and the long-term unemployed began to fear that young male immigrants would be offered the free ride (and, possibly, the women!) that the locals had been denied.

The initial enthusiasm faded. The desire to help and wipe away the stigma of the past was replaced by concerns about limited resources and social norms which must be kept in place. Physical constraints and cultural differences became apparent. Not enough staff, not enough place, long processes. Conflicts among migrants, traumas imported. Refugee shelters sprang up in the vicinity of parks, in school gyms and on the outskirts of ethnically homogenous villages. The country did by no means plunge into chaos, but there were cracks in the hallowed façade of German efficiency. Inexplicable security glitches.

A few immigrants committed unthinkable acts of violence. The vast majority didn’t. A few locals built fences – or worse. The vast majority didn’t. Still, basic psychology kicked in. And basic psychology says, we tend to associate good qualities with the in-group (“us”) and to view occasional deviance in the out-group as proof of something systemically wrong with “them,” a generalized fault.  The foreigner becomes the virus that spreads unchecked, infecting our way of doing things. Some municipalities put out multilingual flyers which included advice on how to separate one’s trash, how to observe Ruhezeiten and where to wash one’s car. Others watched in horror as the container for recycled paper got filled with smelly meal rests – and fumed. Overcrowded daycare centers, a shortage of teachers and public servants, poor transportation and decaying public services did the rest. When we are on the edge, we look for quick, simple fixes.

In Romania, polarization takes place roughly along educational rifts and the urban-rural divide. The westernized urban elites in one corner; the older working class and the traditionalist rural population in another. Dissenters and acquiescers of the regime, old and new. Often within the same family. We talk past each other, neither side able to resonate with the other’s viewpoint. The bubbles are closed and far apart. We watch different TV stations, we vote predictably and at different ends of the spectrum. The differences between our respective “realities,” our life choices and our interpretation of (fragmentary) information have reached Orwellian proportions.

Some yearn for post-modern freedoms and exemplary justice; the others for agrarian-age conservatism and iron fists: So what if they steal a little, doesn’t everybody? The former reject the past and look eagerly into the future. The latter are deeply nostalgic. Some of us prefer hard facts, others counter with idealized narratives or conspiracy theories. There is a cultural battle raging between the advocates of individualism and those of collectivism, a divide between national efficiency and national conceit, between short-term benefits and long-term sustainability. Between impartial institutions and informal, privately-negotiated solutions. There is a face-off between the patriotism of festive speeches and traditions, and the patriotism of ethics and hard work.

There are many areas of disagreement and discord. But they all boil down to two main issues: wealth and political power. What are the acceptable ways to acquire wealth and to wield political power? What degree of arbitrariness and privilege are we – as a society – willing to allow, and what level of accountability do we expect? How are wealth, power, and the country’s resources to be shared and managed? What behaviors do we tolerate, trust, and reinforce? How much idealism, realism, or cynicism should our recipe for the future allow? But instead of dialogue, we have a series of absurd, shrill monologues overlapping each other. Facts are met with alternative facts or no facts at all. Propaganda and scorn.

How are we going to get past this? Why do we bind ourselves into a Gordian knot and then yearn for the sword that sorts it all out? Who is going to take responsibility for the (potentially destructive) outcome? Who is going to uphold the logos and turn down the intemperate pathos?

Polarization robs our quilts of their seams and nuances. Things become unicolored and mass-produced. Things suddenly become incompatible with each other. We become incompatible with each other. We lose empathy. The polarized society is made up of  two opposing camps in a constant state of siege. Where there used to be dialogue, there is mistrust and moats. We no longer look at each other, we keep an eye on each other.

The other has become illegitimate, the perpetrator of all evils, someone not worth listening to, someone vilified. We are being pushed into camps, into extremes. The middle ground is a mined field. Unaffiliated persons are seen as traitors by both sides. Attempting to build bridges, to use reason and point out how the other side might have some valid concerns gets you labelled as a traitor.

Perhaps (hopefully!) polarization is only a moment in time, a swing of the pendulum in its inexorable movement towards a new equilibrium. People do not become polarized for nothing. “Nu iese foc fără fum,” the Romanians say. There is no smoke without a fire. Extremism is not only a rejection of the center, it is also a feeling that the center is feckless or ineffectual. It is a cry for help and a form of testing one’s power. It is an appeal for a different vision, for less taboos in the conversation. We should initiate that conversation before the camps become so hardened in conflict that the only remaining option becomes “zusammen in den Abgrund.

We don’t want the abyss to be the only place we can still go together.

Andreea Sepi


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