Monday, June 25, 2012

Why and How to Resist Bipolarity?

What do you mean by bipolarity?

To be bipolar is to see everything through ‘us vs them’ lenses. It is the ‘if you are not with me, you are against me’ syndrome. As I discussed in the last chapter, our symptoms of bipolarity have become more and more evident in the past ten years. Since we evolved into a two party system in 2008, political partisanships have demarcated much of what we go through as a society. It has painted many issues as though there are only two ways of looking at things. It reduces everything to black and white; ‘I am right, you are wrong’.

A two party, bipolar framework leaves very little room for maneuvering. It becomes about one side pitted against another, leaving no room for alternative views. In their zealousness to gather supporters over to their side, both sides of the political divide are seen to demonise those who do not fit into their narrow definitions of ideas. Rather than make sure their own side is up to par in terms of principles, plans and actions; their strategy is constricted to making the other side look as bad as possible. A bipolar framework pushes political parties and representatives to bend facts, exaggerate, and lie according to what would make them look better as compared to the opponent.

Why must we resist bipolarity?

We must resist bipolarity, because if we do not, it will have certain negative consequences on our society. Whether or not we do move forward as a nation, our politics will be characterised by manipulation and cheap politics. Rather than focusing on the goal of excellent leadership, a bipolar framework promotes leaders and followers who do things by political expedience. It will be about political positioning rather than sincerity. With bipolar approaches, whoever wins in the end, it will no longer be about real merits or who will take better care of our country, but about who can play the game better.

Bipolar approaches are also destructive in the long run because it promotes partisan thinking and lazy, careless decision making. Rather than study the principles of an issue, people support or shoot down an idea based on which side he or she supports. In the long run, we breed uncritical people who are incapable of making intelligent decisions. 

A two party framework like the one we have now pushes people into two extremes. All other views are alienated, even those in the middle. If we do not resist bipolarity, we are heading towards becoming two separate groups growing stronger and stronger, with a deepening gulf between us. History has shown this can be a precursor of civil hostilities. This is not the democracy we want. We want to move forward as one nation, not as a nation divided.

How can we resist bipolarity?

First, we need to fully be aware of this reality - there are more than two ways of seeing things. Things are not just either black or white; they are much more colourful than that. Once we realise that, then we must seek to evaluate ideas based on principle rather than on whose side is saying it. We need to find out as much information as we can before deciding; consider both sides, study the facts. To do this, the best way is to read the news, not just mainstream news but also alternative ones and vice versa.

Secondly, as we do this, we need to be bridge builders in society. As a young nation, we can expect each action towards change to have various reactions towards it. A bipolar approach will cause increasing dichotomy in our society. But we need to move away from this; stop antagonising people who do not hold the same view or who do not choose either one extreme or the other. We need to have more bridge builders who will see right as right and wrong as wrong, who will consider things in the right balance, who value Unity and will speak up with middle path alternatives.

How else can we break bipolar views?

Both sides of the political divide must learn to honour the good in the other side. It is important for us to have respect for our opponents, even early martial arts traditions teach the same thing. Samurai tradition, for example, teaches that we must have respect for honourable opponents, even our worst enemy; silat too has a strong element of respect for opponents. However, this is seriously lacking in our society today. When someone has a different opinion, instead of agreeing to disagree, we tend to demonise them; our goal becomes to break them down at all cost, rather than focus on discussing and considering the issue to find a good way forward.

Secondly, to break the pattern of bipolarity, young leaders must learn not to mimic their hardened elders. They have to remedy the habit of seeing things as black or white. Really good politicians and leaders see the long term vision and act wisely and accordingly; small minded ones aim to win in the immediate small battles.

Third, we each have to admit mistakes on our side. It is okay to admit our mistakes. We need to break the pattern of trying our best to destroy the other side rather than face up to our own issues. When we admit mistakes, the other side may use that against us because they are still working based on a bipolar framework, but we need to know that breaking the cycle of bipolarity is more important for our country in the long term.

Fourth, learn to choose the better idea even if it is not yours. Put our collective growth first over our individual ambitions. Admit it even if another side has a better opinion and a better course of action. The principles of the idea itself should take priority over which side you belong to. It is only those who are unwilling to think deeper that choose to take one side or the other and fail to see that there are many other positions in between. The aim is to move forward, and to move forward as one.

Fifth and importantly - practice empathy. We can only break bipolarity if we learn to understand what the other side is saying, even if we may not agree with them. Practicing empathy in the everyday is how our country can move forward in Unity – let’s start with ourselves as individuals. 

And sixth, choose and practice the middle path – be a bridge builder.

Anas Zubedy
Kuala Lumpur