For most people nowadays, the march of history is a linear process. Our relationship with technology since the age of industrialisation has reinforced that view. It is no surprise then that many would apply that same linear perspective to more intangible aspects of modern life, like culture and values. Counter-intuitively, however, if history proves anything, it is that progress is anything but linear. It may move in stops and starts. It may move in cycles. It may branch off along many pathways that tangle and disentangle before reaching dead ends.
For the past decade, there has been a noticeable rise in intolerance around the world. It has taken on various faces — racism and xenophobia in some nations, sectarianism and political radicalism in others. Whatever shape it takes, it has opened the realm of leadership to populist firebrands, creating a self-sustaining cycle that now suddenly seems hard to shake off. For the proponents of linear history, all of this comes as an unwelcome surprise. Were we not supposed to move towards greater understanding and harmony? In our collective shock, not much thought has been spared over why tendencies we were well on our way to banishing have taken root again. Even less has spent on figuring out what the most effective remedy would be.
At least part of the problem has been our head in the sand approach to some uncomfortable realities. When we limited space for harmful ideologies, we allowed ourselves to believe those were or would be eradicated. The democratisation that the internet has unleashed has simply revealed dangerous ideas never went away. Even so, the temptation exists to repeat that mistake. On an individual level, who has not wanted to walk away from an exasperating conversation? But perhaps we ought to try something different this time? Maybe a better solution lies in some form of engagement rather than banishment? At the very least, it would be wise to try and understand what breeds intolerance and resentment.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 10th, 2020.
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